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Vann Newkirk: 'Most Of My Life I Didn't Know Confederate Statues Could Come Down'


The debate is growing over how to treat Confederate statues in this country. Last night, hundreds of people called for the removal of a statue from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racist statues have to go.

SHAPIRO: Vann Newkirk II grew up less than a hundred miles away in Rocky Mount, N.C., in the shadow of another Confederate monument. Newkirk is a staff writer for The Atlantic, where he's written about how that monument impacted him as a young African-American growing up in the South. Welcome to the program.

VANN NEWKIRK II: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: I'm not African-American, and I didn't grow up in the South. And every day, I walk by statues without necessarily knowing who they are and what they represent. For you, were the Confederate statues very clear? Did they cast a longer shadow than the other statues, or did you just at some point become aware that that's what those particular statues represented?

NEWKIRK II: Well, to be frank, I'm not sure how many statues there were near me that weren't Confederate statues, to a point where some of the first statues that I'd seen that weren't of people who were either part of Jim Crow North Carolina or Confederate North Carolina was when I went to D.C. and saw monuments of the Founding Fathers. They symbolize what we want to remember about history. And I think that lesson makes the ubiquity of Confederate statues in the South that much more meaningful and that much more depressing for people of color.

SHAPIRO: You're write that your classmates would often tell you that their confederate flag T-shirts were about what they called heritage, not hate. That's a phrase we hear a lot in the South. What do you say to that argument now?

NEWKIRK II: Well, I'm still sympathetic to the idea, to the desire for people who really do see these statues, these flags as pieces of their heritage. They see their grandparents, great-grandparents as good people. But what I would say is in our quest to build a region, to build a country that is empathetic to the backgrounds, to the stories of a diverse group of people, we have to consider what we celebrate, the people that we make our icons and heroes, how they affect other people.

I think that's a strong argument because if you generally believe your grandparents, your great-grandparents were, you know, these great people who they were to you, then I think they might be sympathetic to the idea. Hey, this statue, this flag actually hurts other people. Let's hear both sides, and let's figure out a way to deal with history that - in a way that doesn't lionize sort of the people who fought to keep other folks enslaved.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to play a clip for you from Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, civil rights activist who was on Morning Edition today and takes a different point of view.


ANDREW YOUNG: What worries me is that this country will turn to the right so that it will be taking down Martin Luther King's statue next when the racist majority takes over. And I'm saying that a minority cannot be provoking a racist majority that is still underemployed, undereducated and dying faster than we are, that the issue is life and death, not some stupid monuments.

SHAPIRO: What do you say to that?

NEWKIRK II: Ambassador Young is a former mentor of mine. I've been taught by him, and I'm sympathetic to his argument but also would challenge him and that argument by saying I think what he did, what his generation did, what the civil rights movement - they did was considered to be a provocation of the majority of people who they considered to be racist. And they did spark very violent and very dangerous backlashes. But I think the leaders in that generation, including Ambassador Young - they saw that not as just acceptable collateral damage. But actually, they saw that backlash as a sign that what they were doing was right and was going to move the country forward.

So I think now the backlash may not be as violent as it wasn't his day, but the fact that people are reacting this way may be the - exactly the kind of thing you want to see in something that is actually changing the nature of the country and of the South.

SHAPIRO: Vann Newkirk II is a staff writer for The Atlantic, and his article is called "Growing Up In The Shadow Of The Confederacy." Thanks a lot.

NEWKIRK II: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.