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Wilson: Stuck On Stapleton? Colorado has plenty of non-racist heroes who deserve to be remembered

The bad guys aren’t supposed to win, especially when good people make the rules. Newsflash: Klansmen are the bad guys.  

They are terrorists, and should be remembered that way. The body count doesn’t lie. The lynchings were real, and the dead don’t return. In a sane society, racists and bigots don’t get monuments. They are not venerated immortals in our cultural memory, but relegated to history books as warnings, reminding us not to repeat the past. 

Theo Wilson

Benjamin Stapleton was a living human being who was once the mayor of Denver. He helped shape the very landscape of our city. His hand was even in the creation of the beloved Red Rocks amphitheatre. If you wanted nuance, there it is.

He was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan. As we pass the two-year anniversary of the deadly Charlottesville rally, let us remember the reason we tear down Confederate monuments. The very principles of our democracy demand that white supremacist ideology is put behind us.  

In plain English, Ben Stapleton should not have a Denver neighborhood in his honor … at all.  Especially since we know that racism is evil, and we’re out-evolving it as a society. Stapleton homeowners recently voted on a referendum to change the name.

As a black man, this issue is cut and dry to me. There is no gray area, and pretending this is complicated is a sign of moral hypocrisy. Benjamin Stapleton would not want me writing a public critique of his legacy, and would likely want me silenced. 

Too bad, Ben. The freedom of speech guaranteed to me in the First Amendment says a black guy gets to express his opinion. 

In my opinion, denial is a disease. The American strain of this virus is especially potent. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

It infects the minds of those of us emotionally committed to this country’s heroic narrative. But when it boils down to it, which old dead white guy is really a hero in America? Do any of the men on our currency have clean hands when measured against our modern liberal values? Which guy didn’t possess a racist, sexist, or homophobic viewpoint commensurate with the time period in which they lived?  

Will the statues of Thomas Jefferson be town down one day in light of his treatment of the slaves he owned? Will my old high school, George Washington, have to be renamed because of his genocidal policies and views against Native Americans? 

It’s hard to say, but what we do know is this. Benjamin Stapleton was an active member of a terrorist organization. Denying that fact is an affront to those who have been victimized by racist violence. 

These victims and their descendents pay taxes and vote. They participate in America like the rest of us. Their dignity matters in a tangible, dollars-and-cents kind of way. Other Western countries acknowledge this about their historically oppressed minorities.

Germany would not dream of asking its Jewish citizens to drive through neighborhoods named for Eichmann, Goebbels, or Himmler. Tearing down statues of Hitler would not be a moral quandary for them. They would not dare fly a Nazi flag next to the German one like some Southern states fly the Confederate flag next to Old Glory.  

Hell, Mississippi has it incorporated into their actual state flag itself. That affects black people in the same way that Nazi symbolism affects our Jewish brethren. Yet, when I spoke at Robert E. Lee High School in Virginia, the black kids there had sadly begun to normalize this symbolic, institutional disrespect.  

What’s in a name? When it comes to an institution, reverence, normalization and generational legacy. Quietly, one of institutional racism’s biggest weapons is its inertia. The sheer size of the bureaucratic process to change a mechanized habit means to transform anything will be a herculean effort.  

What’s in a name? When it comes to an institution, reverence, normalization and generational legacy. Quietly, one of institutional racism’s biggest weapons is its inertia. The sheer size of the bureaucratic process to change a mechanized habit means to transform anything will be a herculean effort.

There’s evidence that those in charge at Stapleton are making the name changing process entirely too complicated as a possible means to dissuade change. The convoluted process is needlessly impersonal and pretentious. 

For instance, ballots recently went out to thousands of Stapleton homeowners on whether their district delegates should vote to change the name of the neighborhood. Results are expected next week. 

Once the votes are tallied, district delegates will vote to make a recommendation to the executive board. Then the executive board votes on the name change. If they agree, then it gets submitted to master developer Brookfield Properties for an approval or a veto. With all that effort, the developer could just unilaterally say, “Nope!” (A spokeswoman for Brookfield tells The Colorado Sun that the developer will honor the Stapleton executive board’s decision.) This referendum is how the delegates chose to go about the process of the name change, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  

There are other ways of soliciting community input, like asking the community directly. There could have been meetings within the district that included the voices of residential owners and renters, canvassing door to door, and talking to neighbors.  

That’s how the students at DSST Montview voted to change their name from DSST Stapleton last May. These options were suggested to the executive board by community members, but were rejected. They acted as if their hands hands were tied.  I wonder why.

Stapleton’s name on a neighborhood means veneration and passive vindication. It’s telling future generations of kids, “Be like this guy.” It is basically saying to the world that blatant racism will be forgiven and even good people will cosign bigotry, even if oppressed people disagree.  

To be clear, Benjamin Stapleton’s name should not be forgotten. History books need him like they need the Nazis; as reminders of what not to become. But Colorado’s got plenty of non-racist heroes whose names should be uplifted for generations to come. Pick one, already! 


Theo Wilson is a poet, speaker, activist and CNN contributor. Learn more about him at TheoWilson.net.


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