01:02 - Source: CNN
Trump: Are Washington, Jefferson statues next?

Editor’s Note: Shannon LaNier a television host and descendant of Thomas Jefferson. He is the co-author of “Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family.” Follow him @MrShannonLanier. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Shannon LaNier: The statues must be given historical context

The right places for them are museums or other educational environments, he writes

CNN  — 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Those are the words of my sixth great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson, as he wrote them in the Declaration of Independence over 200 years ago. Yet still today we are struggling to make that statement ring true.

As a black Jefferson descendant living in the land of the “free,” it burdens me in multiple ways to have to say that. I understand in perhaps a different way than most Americans the flawed ideals upon which our country was founded. As I watched the hate and violence erupt in Charlottesville, I was reminded of how far we still have to go to truly become a United States of America, where all are created equal.

Shannon LaNier

The Confederate statues and monuments, like the one of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, are blatant symbols of hate, discrimination and racism. When we honor and celebrate the Confederacy in public arenas, we validate and empower the people who wish to perpetuate the hatred and division that it represents. We must no longer give power and permission to people to hate. The Confederate monuments must be removed from public places.

There is a time and a place for everything. Now is the time for change and reconciliation, and the place for those Confederate statues is a museum or other educational environment that can offer a viewer the full story.

The statue alone only provides content, but a museum would give it context. It’s imperative that we remember our history, that we don’t erase our complicated past, that we preserve and learn from it. We have to understand where figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson fit into the fabric of our country. In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, we have to grow and change with our times.

Shannon LaNier and other descendants of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Jefferson's home, in 1999.

Yes, Jefferson participated in the violent and dehumanizing institution of slavery and, as a man of great intellect, he should be held accountable for that. However, equating Jefferson and Lee’s legacies – as many, including our President, have done in the wake of Charlottesville – disregards key differences in the contributions that each man made to America and it history.

Jefferson worked to unite our early republic; Lee fought on behalf of the Confederate states seeking to maintain slavery. Jefferson wanted to move our country forward; Lee became a hero of the “lost cause” version of Civil War history, which glorified our country’s dark ages at a time when we needed light. While Jefferson sought to end slavery in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Lee died feeling it was his supreme right to own and oppress another people.

If we only gave statues to perfect people, Jesus would be the only one – and even then, only if you are a Christian. But Confederate statues were erected to honor post-Civil War white supremacists who are only known for choosing their home states over their Union and fighting a war to defend and extend the evil institution of slavery.

President Jefferson, for all his flaws, also helped grow our country (in more ways than one), writing the Declaration of Independence, creating the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, making the Louisiana Purchase, selling his personal library to rebuild the Library of Congress and founding the University of Virginia – to name a few.

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    There are no monuments of Adolf Hitler in Germany, so why should equal tax-paying Americans be subjected to the celebration of Confederate statues in the communities in which they live?

    We have an opportunity now, because a national conversation is happening, to make real change and take substantive action. Elected officials need to stand up for the message of equality and affirm the message that the United States of America is supposed to represent.

    And this isn’t just about statues. We can also incite change with random acts of kindness and not judging a book by its cover in our personal lives, homes, communities, churches or schools. As the old adage goes, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    In the words of my ancestor: “To restore … harmony … to render us again one people, acting as one nation, should be the object of every man really a patriot.”