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A statue of John C. Calhoun, who was a fierce defender of slavery, stands over downtown Charleston, S.C.

Jabin Botsford

Just down the road from the church where a racist gunman killed nine people last month stands a tall column in a grassy square. Atop it stands an imperious figure with a cape over his shoulders, a closed fist cocked on his hip, a swept-back mane of hair and a piercing look on his bronze face.

This is John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), the South Carolina statesman who was a senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, vice-president of the United States – and fierce defender of slavery.

From his perch 24 metres up, he has been casting his stern gaze over the gracious streets of Charleston since 1896. Is it time to bring him down?

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The church attack has places all over the South talking about removing symbols of the old Confederate states. What started with a focus on the Confederate flag has grown into a debate about everything from statues of Confederate leaders to schools named after Confederate generals. Deciding what to remove and what to leave promises to be a wickedly tough question.

The South is positively strewn with monuments and symbols of the Confederacy. They range from roadside plaques to mouldering markers in town parks to the massive mountainside relief sculpture at Stone Mountain, Ga., to three Confederate heroes: president Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

To some, they are a way of honouring history; to others, a bitter reminder of slavery and the generations of racism and segregation that followed.

Is it censoring a part of the nation's story to pull down statutes and change street names? Or is it a legitimate way to make amends for an ugly chapter in that story?

The question has been hotly argued around the country since a white gunman walked into a historic church in Charleston on June 17 and shot dead six women and three men, all of them black. The man charged with the crime had posted racist material online showing him holding a Confederate flag. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley responded by moving to take down the flag from the grounds of the statehouse.

Feelings on both sides are intense. Confederate monuments in several Southern states have been spray-painted with the words "Black Lives Matter" and other slogans.

At the University of Texas in Austin, a campaign has sprung up to take down a prominent statue to Jefferson Davis. In Tennessee, some legislators want to see the removal of a bust in the statehouse of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who went on to become the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

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The parks board in Birmingham, Ala., voted Thursday to consider removing a 110-year-old Confederate monument from a city square. Baltimore's mayor says she is creating a special commission to look into what should be done about her city's nine Confederate monuments and many statues. The dean of the National Cathedral in Washington says that stained-glass depictions of generals Lee and Jackson are unacceptable symbols of "racism, slavery and oppression."

Is Calhoun next? His statue has been under police guard since someone sprayed the word "racist" by his name on the monument's granite base. To the words reading "Truth Justice and the Constitution," the graffitist added "and slavery?"

Calhoun was a renowned statesman and political thinker of his time. He was also a slaveholder who argued that slavery was a "a positive good" for the slave. In an 1837 speech, notes historian Paul Starobin in Politico magazine, he said that never before had black people "attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually."

Although Calhoun died a decade before the Civil War, he helped set the table for conflict with his defence of states rights. His doctrine of "nullification" held that the Constitution was an accord among states, so any state could declare a congressional edict unconstitutional. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it: "He spent the last 20 years of his life in the Senate working to unite the South against the abolitionist attack on slavery."

Should a memorial to such a man continue to stand in the modern South, just steps from a place where nine people were gunned down in the name of racial hatred? To some, the answer is obvious.

"It is kind of 'nose on your face' that these are symbols of racism, bigotry and hatred, and they have to go right now," says University of Houston professor Gerald Horne, who is black. He has written several books on slavery and the slave trade. "Nobody says they shouldn't be in museums or taught about in schools. The question is: Should my tax dollars go to maintaining statues to people who, if they had their way, I'd still be on the auction block?"

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He says countries remove monuments all the time as history evolves. Russia took down some statues of Lenin. Many African countries took down monuments from the colonial era and changed street names.

For black Americans, keeping the monuments standing "sends a very powerful message that we honour people who keep you enslaved. The message is you're not fully equal, not fully free."

Lacy Ford, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, sees things differently. Taking down the Confederate flag is one thing. Flying it, especially at the state capitol, was a deliberate decision that offended many black Americans. Letting an old monument raised by long-dead people a hundred years ago keep standing is something different, he says.

Instead of taking down monuments or renaming schools, governments should use them to teach people about dark periods in the past, Prof. Ford says. "To learn from history, you don't want to go back and sanitize it. The way to learn is to have the whole story in front of you."

On the streets of Charleston, too, opinion is divided. On a corner within Calhoun's lofty view, Leslie Green, 20, a restaurant worker, who is black, sits smoking a cigarillo on a humid night. When she hears what Calhoun stood for, she says that "I don't think he should really be up there." But she doesn't expect authorities to remove him. The Confederate flag flew for decades over the statehouse and yet "they had to wait till a guy kills people to take it down."

A few blocks away, Tim Dillinger, who is white, leads an evening "ghost story" walk for tourists. In period dress, he wears a straw hat, riding boots and goatee. He spends his off time re-enacting Civil War battles and has carried the Confederate flag on the battlefield, but the church massacre has changed his mind about that symbol. "One hundred and fifty years after the fact, it is oppressive to some people" and "we should do our best to make everyone happy," he says.

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Calhoun is another question. "John C. Calhoun did a lot of things beside holding slaves," Mr. Dillinger says. "He was very instrumental in getting the railroads started. He was a visionary of his time. Now people just want to topple him over."

Once you start by pulling down his statue, he wonders, where do you stop? It's a fair question. The Historical Marker Database, an online resource, lists no less than 13,037 Civil War monuments and markers, both Union and Confederate, around the United States.

Yale University has a Calhoun College, a student residence named after the statesman. Alabama has a Calhoun Community College.

Then there is Calhoun Street. It is one of Charleston's main thoroughfares and it runs right through the city centre, passing in front of the Calhoun statue. In fact, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the massacre took place, stands at 110 Calhoun.

"That's right, family members of those killed have to go to memorial services at Emanuel AME and look at street signs honoring one of the most rabid supporters of slavery in American history," said The Intercept, an online publication founded by investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and others, in an article calling for the name to be changed and the Calhoun statue to be pulled down.

Should the street be named after someone else, like the popular minister Clementa Pinckney, who was slain at the church? Or is it best to leave the old names and symbols be, accepting their existence without approving of what they represent?

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The debate is just beginning.

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