Jackson statue question could go to voters

Jeff Fox
This statue of Andrew Jackson was given to the county by President Truman in 1949. It stands on the west side of what is today called the Truman Courthouse.

Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. and others are calling for the removal of Andrew Jackson statues in Independence and Kansas City, but it appears the question is headed to the ballot.

“This is not about erasing history. We can never do that,” White told legislators Monday. “This is about standing on the right side of history.”

“Do our policies, practices and symbols truly reflect both the type of inclusive community we are and, more importantly, the type of community we want to be? The answer is no,” White said. “The statues of Andrew Jackson outside the two courthouses are 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.”

Two county legislators spoke in favor of removing the statues – one at the Downtown Courthouse and one at the Truman Courthouse on the Independence Square – but Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit, said she plans to introduce a measure on July 13 to put the issue before the voters.

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

White stressed that the statues would be preserved and the county would find “a better home for these statues, where their history can be put into the appropriate context for us to learn from.”

White, the county’s first African-American county executive, grew up in Kansas City and was born in Mississippi and spent summers there when he was young. He remembers – with no fondness – picking cotton. He remembers the whites-only bathrooms. He told legislators he has seen plenty of racism and discrimination.

“I’ve witnessed it throughout my lifetime,” he said.

“Really, I could be George Floyd,” White said. “My children, my grandchildren could be George Floyd. He was murdered by a police officer who treated (him) without an ounce of respect for humanity. It makes me sad and angry to watch and talk about it. But I have a responsibility to speak up and say this isn’t right. … I think it’s time for this body to do the same.”

His preference is for the County Legislature to name a special committee, hold public hearings soon, and then act.

County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, however, late last year said she was trying to avoid the county’s frequent pattern of study, discussion and then it’s “two years from now and nothing’s changed” when she proposed explanatory language to be posted at the two statues. White said he supported that idea but took exception to not being consulted and to not having African-Americans and Native Americans involved in the process.

The Legislature in December voted for the plaques – which have never been put up.

The plaques were to have made note of the Missouri General Assembly naming the county for Jackson in 1826 and then say, “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.”

Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, referred to the Trail of Tears on Monday.

Congress had affirmed Cherokees’ right to their land decades before Jackson took office.

“But this president,” he said, “made sure that the Trail of Tears went through. Imagine – imagine any of you picking up now because the government will not recognize your right, and to move you. But there’s no protection for you, and you’re killed along the way. … That is what that president did who’s out on that statue, and in Independence.”

Legislator Ronald Finley, D-Kansas City, expressed support for taking the statues down but also supported putting the question on the ballot.

During the plaque debate last December, some legislators said they favored removing the statues – even renaming the county – but said those moves seemed unlikely.

Anderson, who sponsored the measure for plaques, said he now believes that didn’t go far enough.

“But we must be willing to take a stand now,” he said. “People are hurting.”