Andrew Jackson statues back on the ballot

Jeff Fox

Taking down two statues of Andrew Jackson will go to voters after all. Jackson County legislators on Monday overrode a veto by County Executive Frank White Jr.

“This isn’t 1826. This is 2020,” said Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit. “And the people want to have their voices heard, and they deserve to be heard.”

White and the Legislature have gone around and around on removing the statues at the Independence and Kansas City Courthouses. Some legislators favor simply voting to remove them, and White has called for that, too.

Legislators two weeks voted to put the question on the November ballot. White vetoed that last week, and on Monday the Legislature voted 6-3 to override that veto.

Legislators have discussed the statues off and on since late 2019, expressing the need to at least acknowledge that Jackson – the county’s namesake and the nation’s seventh president – owned slaves, was excessively and especially cruel toward them, and facilitated genocide by signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830, leading to the infamous Trail of Tears.

White was not at Monday’s meeting, but several legislators – including some who agree with him on the statue question – criticized how he has handled this.

“I don’t understand why he’s always trying to pit us against each other,” said Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City.

In his veto message last week, White said the Legislature “has not acted courageously” in the weeks since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The Legislature has not passed any resolution condemning that killing or saying that Black lives matter, he said. Galvin pointed out Monday that White hasn’t brought forward any such resolutions.

Tarwater said he has spoken out on Floyd’s death, and Legislator Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City – who said he agrees the statues should come down – also took exception to White’s statement.

“I’m just very disappointed that he’s calling me a coward,” he said.

“The strategy behind this is kind of confounding to me,” added Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City.

She wants the statues down and said she had planned earlier to put that question to the Legislature – “and I was met with resistance,” she said.

She sided with Legislators Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, and Ronald Finley, D-Kansas City, in voting with White on the veto but nonetheless expressed her frustration.

“This whole thing is really difficult for me,” she said, “because in reality I am so damn tired of issues being weaponized by the public information officer of the executive against me and against my colleagues, particularly me when I stand up for the same issues.”

Galvin also defended her fellow legislators.

“So I just want to say I respect the county executive’s stance on removing the Andrew Jackson statues,” she said. “What I don’t understand is the county counselor’s office has said that it was their opinion that the county executive had the authority to remove them. However, he then put out a press release putting that obligation or that responsibility on the County Legislature. It became our decision. And clearly it's a decision that we all took seriously. We did not take this lightly.”

Anderson, who favors removing the statues, said the issue has been poorly handled by both sides. He, like others, stressed his respect for his fellow legislators and their views, even as they differ on this issue. He had spoken for removal two weeks ago.

On Monday, he spoke in terms both personal and sweeping in the historic sense.

“Never in my life have I had so many racist comments thrown towards my way,” he said regarding his earlier comments.

He stressed again that he’s talking about more than a statue, that the community is owning up to issues it hasn’t seriously discussed since the 1960s.

“What we are facing right now is that a federal government has sent officers here that are not coordinating,” he said. “What we are facing is a higher rate of poverty. What we are facing is a decline in what this county was heading towards with really digging itself out of its awful past, and having sundown cities and making sure that certain people can’t get certain jobs. That’s what I was talking about. I was talking about that finally we could maybe move towards the idea that we are all equal.”

The issue, he said, is about how America has in the past treated Native Americans and African Americans.

He quoted James Baldwin, the Black writer and social critic who wrote about this 57 years ago in his book “The Fire Next Time.” Altering a word or phrase here and there, Anderson read this passage:

“They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. ... Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”

And, “We must force our brothers and sisters throughout this country to see themselves as they are (and) cease fleeing from reality and to begin to change it.”

That next time is here now, Anderson said.

He added, “I just ask that my colleagues remember these words and hold dear that this is not just about a statue. This is about how we look, and how we act, and how people find faith in this government.”

The language to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot:

Shall Jackson County, Missouri, remove the statues of Andrew Jackson now located outside the Jackson County Courthouse and the Historic Truman Courthouse in Independence?