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Understanding, listening are the keys to healing post-Civil War wounds

The nation continues to be wrapped up in controversy over Confederate-era statues. 

Workers load statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson on a flatbed truck in the early hours of Aug. 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Md.

True confession: I'm an American History nerd. And proud of it.

I read as much as I can, I watch documentaries, I was a history minor in college. It's a passion that's not far behind sports in the level of DeNatale interests. In fact, I probably would have been a history teacher or professor had it not been for this darn broadcasting thing I've done for almost 20 years.

So as the controversy surrounding the violence this past weekend in Charlottesville has continued to boil throughout our nation, I've been trying to put things in historical perspective as best I can.

Few periods in our nation's history are as complex, and none as tragic, as the years between 1861-65. The Civil War, said historian Shelby Foote in Ken Burns' remarkable PBS documentary series, "was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads." Foote believed, as I do, that any understanding of America must be based on an understanding of The Civil War. Much of that history is being debated, even by our own president, who equated Robert E. Lee to founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson recently.

But as rhetoric inflames, and protests continue in our nation, I wonder if can we resolve one pressing issue: What to do with the Confederate statues that are at the core of a great debate?

Some want them all to come down, believing that they signify racism and a dark remembrance of slavery. Others believe it's an essential part of local history and heritage.

I decided that maybe it's time for me to take a step back and listen.

Robert E. Lee V, is the great-great grandson of the man who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. The man whose statue was at the heart of the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville that led to violence and the death of Heather Heyer. Two state police officers patrolling the area were also killed in a helicopter crash.

For his part, Lee V. tells CNN that when it comes to keeping his great-grandfather's statue up, "we have to be able to have that conversation without all of the hatred and the violence. And if they choose to take those statues down, fine."

Jefferson Davis' great-great grandson had similar thoughts during a conversation with MSNBC's Ali Velshi on Wednesday. There is a statue of the Confederate president in Memphis, Tennessee. The younger Davis and Lee V. both suggest that if the statues are deemed too offensive to the public, they should be placed in museums or in some other historical setting.

The Gettysburg National Military Park, which memorializes soldiers who fought and died during the Battle of Gettysburg, including men who served in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, has made it clear that their monuments aren't going anywhere. "These memorials, erected predominantly in the early and mid-20th century, are an important part of the cultural landscape," park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon said to our Tegna partner The Evening Sun.

Brian Mallon is a gifted author and actor, best known for portraying Union General Winfield Scott Hancock in the Civil War epic movies 'Gettysburg' and 'Gods and Generals.' This is one of my favorite scenes of 'Gettysburg' as Hancock talks to Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (played by Jeff Daniels) about having to face his friend and former comrade-in-arms, Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead, prior to Pickett's Charge.

Since Mallon has spent considerable time researching the war for his role as Hancock, walking on the battlefields, and engaging with Civil War re-enactors, I wondered what his perspective was about this debate.

"It's complicated, but let me say that it's a pity that since George Wallace, that Confederate flag has been brandished at racist events," Mallon told me. "But I think those statues are simply tributes to local heroes, and local pride, and I think it's ridiculous to open all these wounds afresh."

I respect my friend and colleague at WKYC, Russ Mitchell, as much as anyone I've ever come across in this business. His tweet during the chaos of Charlottesville helped inspire me to write this piece:

I often turn to him to help me understand the political football that goes on in Washington. In this case, I wanted to know what Russ, an African-American, thought about the Confederacy-era symbols that helped to fuel what we saw in Charlottesville.

"The statues don't bother me nearly as much as the flag does," he told me.

Some politicians are asking their constituents for their opinion on this matter. The city of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, are holding public meetings to give leaders input.

Others are moving forward quickly. Take the governor of New York for instance:

The city of Baltimore also took decisive action, removing their Confederate statues after a vote by their city council.

I was also moved by the words of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. His administration is setting up a task force to determine the fate of Confederate statues in city parks during the next 90 days, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park and the Confederate War Memorial in downtown Dallas, according to CNN. "This is simple. We could remove them, the question is, how do we heal on this issue? To do that we have to talk and listen to one another," Rawlings said.


Turn the cable news channels off. Put away Twitter and Facebook. And let's have a real heart-to-heart discussion in our neighborhoods, in our communities, and in our country about what these symbols mean. As the great-great grandsons of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee suggest, if it means taking them down, then move them somewhere where they can be a part of a historical discussion.

And maybe we can heal.

"I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it," historian Barbara Fields said at the end of Burns' documentary. "What we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is in the present as well as the past."

Let's not lose this war. We owe that to Heather Heyer.