Sunday night, John Oliver spent nearly half of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” using humor to detail the history behind America’s Confederate monuments and explaining why they need to be removed.
The segment comes as white nationalists returned to Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend to protest the removal of a Confederate monument. Their first march over the summer turned violent and ultimately ended with one counter-protester dead.
“What do you do now?” asked Oliver. “I would argue that nothing is not acceptable and trying to paper over the cracks can actually make things worse. In the 1990s, Richmond tried to fix its Monument Avenue, a street lined with statues of Confederate leaders, by adding African-American tennis legend Arthur Ashe to it. You can’t just give Confederates a black friend and say, ‘We’re good, right?’”
“So if we really want to learn from and honor our history,” he continued, “perhaps the first step might be to put most of these statues somewhere more appropriate surrounded by ample historical context — like at a museum.”
Oliver pointed out that the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,503 Confederate memorials across the country, of which 718 are statues sand monuments, and 10 are U.S. military bases named for Confederate officers.
“Think about that…they were the enemy and they killed U.S. soldiers,” Oliver marveled. “That’s like finding out Nancy Kerrigan named her child Tonya Harding.”
Oliver reminded viewers the south was fighting to preserve the institution of slavery, though a recent poll suggested only 38% of Americans cite that as the reason.
Oliver also played the different reactions of three celebrities who learned they had slave-owning ancestors on PBS’s “Finding Your Roots.: Ben Affleck famously got the show’s EP, Henry Louis Gates Jr. to edit out reference to his slave-owning ancestors. Larry David screeched incredulity. And Anderson Cooper, upon learning his ancestor was beaten to death by one of his slaves called it “amazing,” said he was “blown away” and, when asked if he thought his ancestor deserved it, responded, “Yeah.”
None of those men is responsible for what their ancestor did, Oliver said, adding, “I have to believe that; I’m English and I would like to go to an Indian restaurant at some point in my life.”
Most importantly, Oliver drove home the point that most of these statues were not erected immediately after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender but in the 1900s to 1920s, as white Southerners were re-asserting themselves with Jim Crow law; and during the 50s and 60s, as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Those statues weren’t so much commemorating recently fallen dead as sending a hostile message to African Americans, Oliver pointed out; some were dedicated by KKK members.
Which brought Oliver to Trump’s remarks that “they” are trying to take away “our culture” and “they’re trying to take away our history” with the movement to remove the statues from government buildings and public spaces.
“All people, living and dead, exist on what I’m going to call the Hitler-Hanks spectrum from bad to good,” Oliver joked, showing a good-to-bad grid with Hitler’s face at one end and Tom Hanks’ mug at the other. He did not say where Trump fits in to that spectrum.
Oliver joins those who argue that these Confederate statues should be put into museums. He then unveiled statues that he felt would be perfect replacements, including a statue of Robert Smalls, the former slave who became the first black member of Congress from Beaufort County, South Carolina.
Watch the entire segment from “Last Week Tonight” below.
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