D.C. Grapples With Its Own Confederate Statue Controversy After Charlottesville

Marches in D.C. this week took aim at the monument to Albert Pike, a pro-slavery Confederate general.

A group of at least 1,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the White House on Sunday to demonstrate solidarity with counterprotesters who had suffered in violent clashes with white nationalists the day before. From there, they marched toward the District of Columbia’s only remaining outdoor monument to a Confederate general ― a reminder that the issue that had supposedly drawn neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan to Charlottesville, Virginia, is not yet settled in the nation’s capital.

Earlier in the weekend, throngs of Tiki torch-wielding white supremacists descended on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederacy to a weary surrender in the Civil War. Just over 100 miles northeast, his comrade, Brig. Gen. Albert Pike, stands memorialized in a statue in Washington’s Judiciary Square.

Pike should arguably be a more divisive figure than Lee. While there have been some contested suggestions that Lee may have opposed slavery, Pike certainly did not. Pike was born in Massachusetts in 1809 and moved to Arkansas in his 20s. He joined the Know-Nothing Party, but left because they weren’t pro-slavery enough. He wrote news, composed poetry and practiced law, with his clients including members of Native American tribes. Pike joined the Confederate army as a brigadier general in 1861. He resigned his military post the next year after the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas, where he proved unable to control his troops. He died in Washington in 1891.

Pike was also a Freemason, and it was his role with that organization, including as grand commander of the Scottish Rite Masons, that earned him a memorial in the nation’s capital. The Freemasons erected the statue in 1901.

Standing on his pedestal, Pike wears civilian attire. The engravings talk about his work as an author, poet and philanthropist. But his legacy as a Confederate general and proud supporter of slavery is conspicuously absent. The engravings do not mention that he wrote the Confederate battle song “Dixie to Arms” or that troops under his command were accused of committing atrocities against Union soldiers in battle.

The memorial and its selective homage to Pike the Freemason should bother people, argues Eugene Puryear, an organizer with the Stop Police Terror Project D.C., which helped organize Sunday’s rally.

“Even if that was the only reason they erected it, still by erecting it you’re deciding that the white supremacy legacy of slavery, the legacy of segregation that he left was something that wasn’t problematic to you and that you were happy to platform and raise up,” he told HuffPost.

“Whatever good Albert Pike may have done to afford the Masonic organization, to me, is completely and utterly tainted by his racist views,” added Sean Blackmon, who is also with the Stop Police Terror Project D.C.

Demonstration organizers chose to end Sunday’s march at Pike’s statue, Puryear said, in order to draw attention to the racist sentiments still pervasive in American society. Confederate statues like Pike’s represent “the rise of white supremacist governments” after the failure of Reconstruction, he said.

Pike also hopes the statue’s ― and thus the protest’s ― proximity to the city’s Metropolitan Police Department will help draw attention to issues of police violence and racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

The Stop Police Terror Project D.C. supports the removal of Pike’s statue, but has not yet taken any formal steps calling for its removal.

The statue falls under the purview of the National Park Service and is considered part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks in D.C. Mike Litterst, a spokesperson for the National Mall, said they have not received any recent calls or petitions for the statue’s removal, although it did face opposition in the early 1990s.

The Freemasons no longer have any official connection to the Pike memorial.

“I understand the fervor over it, because I think that it’s a sensitive topic these days,” said Jason Van Dyke, director of communications for the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia. “The Confederacy in general is a very, very sensitive topic, considering the mood of the country. So I get it. But if you know anything about Pike, he was much, much more than just a Confederate general.”

Van Dyke added that the Freemasons, whose members served on both sides of the Civil War, have always supported freedom of speech and open discourse, and he expressed hope for “a more civil conversation” about the monument.

On Monday evening, another march ended at Pike’s statue with protesters carrying signs reading “White Supremacy is Terrorism” and “Black Lives Matter.” Once again, they vowed to fight racism and held a moment of silence for Heather Heyer, who was killed in the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday.

To Puryear and Blackmon, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the recent surge in white supremacist movements and the growing debate over the public honor paid to historic racist figures are “a direct result of the rise of Donald Trump.”

“It’s no secret that the Republican Party especially has used racist, dog-whistle politics, and Trump just brought it out of the shadows,” Puryear said.

While the monument debate may have just begun in the District, protesters in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands on Monday evening, tearing down a statue of a Confederate soldier that stood outside a courthouse.

“I think at this moment in time,” Puryear said, “when we are realizing in such a raw way how deep issues of racism and the legacy of racism and slavery continues to be with us, I think it’s just extraordinarily inappropriate for these monuments to be up, based on what they represent.”

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