Before removal (copy)

The 1981 memorial to the Confederate soldiers buried at Forest Hill Cemetery was removed Wednesday at the order of Mayor Paul Soglin.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has not decided whether he will challenge Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the 2018 election. Several other Democrats have stepped up to make the race, and Soglin may well end up backing one of them.

But were Soglin to seek the governorship, the contrast with Walker would be as stark as any that has been seen in the history of Wisconsin.

That became clear last week, as leaders across the country wrestled with the unsettled questions of the Civil War and its aftermath. Following the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where champions of the Confederacy and their Nazi allies gathered to object to the removal of statues honoring those who took up arms against the United States as part of a struggle to preserve human bondage. President Donald Trump tried to blur the distinction between those who defend the Confederacy’s racist legacy (and the white supremacist and white nationalist movements that extend from it) and those who object to racism, xenophobia, sexism and inequality. Trump tried to suggest that the blame for “hatred, bigotry and violence” should be placed “on many sides." And he later claimed that some “very fine people” were marching in Charlottesville “to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

Walker’s reaction was to announce that, while he personally objected to bigotry and hatred, “I’ll let the president and his team speak for him.” Given repeated opportunities to denounce Trump’s stunning statements, or at least to distance himself from his party’s president, Walker refused.

The governor provided zero leadership for his party, his state or his country.

Soglin, on the other hand, responded decisively — with words and deeds. He ordered the removal of city-owned monuments in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery, one of which referred to the Southern troops buried there as “valiant Confederate soldiers” and “unsung heroes” of the Confederate States of America. A pair of Confederate battle flags topped the memorial.

“The Civil War was an act of insurrection and treason and a defense of the deplorable practice of slavery. The monuments in question were connected to that action and we do not need them on city property,” declared Soglin, who added, “Taking down monuments will not erase our shared history. The Confederacy’s legacy will be with us, whether we memorialize it in marble or not. I agree with other mayors around the country also speaking out and taking action. We are acknowledging there is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. In Madison, we join our brothers and sisters around the country to prove that we, as a people, are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile, and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves.”

Those are the wise words of an elected official who has chosen to be a leader rather than a bystander to history. Walker has consigned himself to a lesser station. Soglin has occupied the higher ground.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising

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