Challenges to monuments demand a thoughtful response

It seems unlikely Georgia can avoid the debate about Confederate symbols and memorials just because we changed our state flag more than a dozen years ago.

From Stone Mountain to street names, just about anything linked to the Old South’s Lost Cause that isn’t actually in a museum display case is being challenged. Handled poorly, this has the unfortunate potential to stir division, at a time when nerves are already frayed.

Maybe it’s the flurry of court decisions over the past week, but I’m put in the mind of legal tests a court might establish for sorting out thorny issues. So, with apologies to judges everywhere — and to anyone ambivalent about abnormal amounts of alliteration — here are some questions we might use to evaluate each case.

First, is it privately owned? If so, move on. We should not consider any bans of private property.

Does it equal government promotion? Is it given prominence? These two tend to go together. South Carolina's flag, for example, can hardly be seen as anything but promotion in a prominent location.

But the two can also be considered separately. The Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate may or may not qualify as promotion: I doubt our state truly promotes the Florida Gators, for which there is also a specialty plate; but then, the Supreme Court just last month said such plates represent government speech. Either way, we might also ask if the presence of 3,500 plates out of roughly 9 million issued statewide really constitutes prominence — though your mileage may vary depending on where you live.

Would you typically encounter it on your own prerogative? Here I am thinking of Confederate cemeteries that may be maintained at least in part with public funds, and where the battle flag or other C.S.A. banners fly. Chances are, if you visit such a cemetery it's because you're interested in that history and are unlikely to take offense. This doesn't apply to, say, a state capitol. (I realize this one could take us down the road of saying some public places are only for certain groups; we should take care not to go that far.)

Is it proportional? This final test might be the most important. We can tie ourselves in knots debating what should stay and what should go. We would be better off recognizing at least part of the problem has to do with the parts of our history not so memorialized.

On our state Capitol grounds there are statues of unrepentant segregationists. But their presence is made all the worse by the fact that not until next year are they due to be joined by a statue of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Even then, there will just be one statue of a black person, in a part of the country where a whole lot of black people have lived for more than 300 years. Not to mention other groups.

We may ultimately deem some memorials worthy of removal. But if the idea is to reflect our history, wouldn’t we better off fleshing that out by adding new memorials, rather than blotting out parts by subtracting others?

These are just a few suggestions. You may have others. As long as they advance a thoughtful discussion, I’m all ears.