John Oliver took a long hard look at the debate over Confederate statues on Last Week Tonight – though yes, President Donald Trump and Donny Jr, he did kick off his show giving Harvey Weinstein a late-night once over.
In recent years, there has been robust debate over Confederate symbols, including statues. Southern Poverty Law Center says they counted 1,503 Confederate memorials across the country, of which 718 are statues and monuments and 10 are U.S. military bases are 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 compared and contrasted the different reax of three celebrities to learning they had slave-owning ancestors, on PBS’ Finding Your Roots. Ben Affleck famously got the show’s EP, Henry Louis Gates Jr., to remove 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 insisted, 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.”
But it’s important for people to come to grips with the fact most of these statues were not erected immediately after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender but in the 1900s-1920s, as white Southerners were re-asserting themselves with Jim Crow laws, with another spike in 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 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 is among those arguging the statues should be put into museums where people actually go to learn about history. Their plinths should be used to better purpose, which Oliver demonstrated, include a statue of Robert Smalls, the former slave who became the first black member of Congress from Beaufort County, SC.
As for Charleston, Oliver argued, “Why have a divisive Confederate statue when that pedestal can be filled by your favorite son, the Actual Stephen Colbert, who will stand there all day and tell you fun facts about your wonderful town?” Oliver unveiled Colbert.
Charleston is home to the first free public library in America, Colbert announced.
“See, Charleston, you can have this 24 hours a day. Seven day a week!” Oliver raved.
Colbert corrected that he does his show five days a week.
“Five days a week! How do you do it?!” Oliver wondered.
“I don’t know,” answered Colbert, who’d famously quipped, while hosting the most recent Emmy Awards, best-late-night-show winner Oliver’s program is “so high quality, they can only make one a week.”