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Will voters remove Andrew Jackson statues?

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

When Jackson County voters have gone to the Independence Square to cast absentee ballots, they could look directly across Liberty Street at one of the things they’re voting on.

Voters will decide Nov. 3 if the county shall remove the Andrew Jackson statues outside the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Kansas City and the Truman Courthouse in Independence.

Jackson County voters are deciding this fall whether to remove this statue of Andrew Jackson from the Truman Courthouse on the Independence Square as well as the Jackson statue in downtown Kansas City. The statues would likely be moved to museum settings. (Mike Genet/The Examiner]

The county was named in honor of Gen. Jackson in 1826, two years before he was elected the country’s seventh president. He is riding a horse in both statues, which have little written information. The downtown statue just says “Andrew Jackson,” and the Independence statue notes that it was “presented to the people of Jackson County” by President Truman in 1949.

If voters say to take them down, the statues will be placed at buildings elsewhere in the county, possibly displayed with signs giving historical context of Jackson’s complicated legacy. Jackson, a military hero from the War of 1812 who warded off Southern secession during his presidency, also was a slave owner, and he signed the Indian Removal Act that forced Native Americans off their land and triggered the infamous, thousand-mile Trail of Tears.

County Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, one who favors removing the statues, said he and County Executive Frank White Jr.’s office have been reaching out to some museums in the county about possibly taking the statues depending how the vote goes. While Anderson would prefer the statues not be on public property – “Especially where you pay taxes and go to court,” he said – regardless of the vote he would like to have signs with historic context, which the Legislature approved late last year, placed with the statues. 

Such signs, he said, would be “not only to teach about what President Jackson accomplished, but also the effects his legislation and his mindset had on the country. I’m against destroying the statues, but rather let’s use them for teaching.” 

“It’s not as if I have vendetta against the president, but society has changed greatly since his time,” said Anderson, one of two Black members of the County Legislature. “They’re not the knights in shining armor people thought they were then.” 

After the downtown statue was vandalized in late June, amid the post-George Floyd social unrest, White, the county’s first Black county executive, called on the County Legislature to start a process including public hearings that would lead to the statues being placed elsewhere. A couple legislators supported that sentiment, but Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit, pushed to put the issue on the ballot.

“That’s their property. That should be their decision, not ours,” she said.

At least four of the nine legislators have voted to remove the statues or said they should be removed. But a majority voted in July to put the question on the ballot, and then to override White’s veto on the measure.

“This isn’t 1826. This is 2020,” Galvin said when they overrode the veto. “And the people want to have their voices heard, and they deserve to be heard.” 

White has said his desire to remove the statues isn’t about erasing history.

“We can never do that,” White told legislators when he initially pushed for them to remove the statues. “This is about standing on the right side of history.”

While he was raised in Kansas City, White was born in Mississippi and often visited relatives there. He recalled to legislators – not fondly – about picking cotton and dealing with whites-only bathrooms there and other forms of racism in his lifetime. White, like Anderson, noted that officials in Jackson, Mississippi voted on their own to remove their own Jackson statues.

White told legislators he sees the Jackson statues outside the courthouses as “symbols of slavery, oppression and death.”

“As long as these statues remain our words about fairness, justice and equality will continue to ring hollow to many we serve,” he said.

When White and legislators went back and forth about the statues over the summer, feedback on The Examiner’s Facebook overwhelmingly was against removing them. Erasing history prevents people from productively learning from the bad aspects of history, some said.

This is the language, which Anderson and County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker helped craft, for the planned Jackson statue plaques that had been approved by legislators late last year:

“In 1826, the Missouri State Legislature named this county after the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 – Andrew Jackson – nearly three years before he became the nation’s seventh President. Almost two centuries later, we hold a broader, more inclusive view of our nation. Jackson’s ownership of slaves and his support for the Indian Removal Act are part of his history. The act forced Native Americans from their home territories so that white settlers could live there and triggered the Trail of Tears, a 1,000-mile march resulting in the death of thousands, including an estimated one-quarter of the entire Cherokee nation.”

“This statue of Jackson reminds us we are on a path that in the immortal works of Martin Luther King, Jr., bends toward justice. In turn, we must acknowledge past injustices to help us create a greater nation built upon humane policies to light our way and the way of humanity everywhere.”

“You may be entering this revered building today in a pursuit of truth or justice. Welcome. Your own history is still being written.”