A statue of Christopher Columbus no longer stands in the shadow of Coit Tower.
The statue, sculpted by one of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's bodyguards, was moved to storage Thursday. It had been vandalized three times in the past week, as statues of Columbus, Confederate leaders and other men whose legacies are inseparable from racism and oppression come down around the world amid global protests following George Floyd's death in police custody last month.
Columbus' arrival in the Americas in 1492 ushered in an era of colonialism, defined by the genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples and the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The removal of Columbus' statue -- in San Francisco and elsewhere around the United States -- represents partial and overdue recognition of the fundamental roles that the oppression of Native and Black Americans played in the founding and development of this country, as well as that of their modern ramifications.
"At a time of great unrest and deep reflection by our country, we recognize the pain and oppression that Christopher Columbus represents to many," supervisor Aaron Peskin said Thursday in a statement to NBC Bay Area. "We believe that through public art we can and should honor the heritage of all of our people, including our Italian-American community, but in doing so we should choose symbols that unify us. The Arts and Recreation and Park Commissions will engage in a public process to determine what artwork should go in that space near Coit Tower."
The difficulty of the task comes not in replacing Columbus, a man whose list of atrocities committed in his own life alone was long enough to warrant a re-examination of his status as a mythic figure in America, but in limiting the options. Focusing on pioneering athletes with ties to San Francisco and the Bay Area, then, could offer inspiration.
How about Colin Kaepernick, the second Black quarterback to start for the 49ers and the last 49ers QB to start a game in San Francisco's city limits? His 2016 protest of police brutality and institutional racism by kneeling during the national anthem highlighted the same societal issues protestors around the world are demonstrating against. Kaepernick has continued the work by advancing causes of social justice, even as no NFL team has signed him since 2017.
Why not honor Toni Stone, who played in San Francisco before breaking baseball's gender barrier with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League in 1953? In doing so, Stone would become only the fourth nonfictional woman commemorated with a statue in the city.
One option would, however, stand above the rest: Literally, due to his 6-foot-10 height, and figuratively, in the eyes of this writer.
San Francisco should replace Columbus' statue with one honoring Bill Russell, the former University of San Francisco star whose transcendent dominance on the court is eclipsed by his unwavering fight for change off of it.
Yes, Russell, who grew up in West Oakland, won two NCAA titles, five NBA MVP awards and 11 NBA championships. The last two of his rings with the Boston Celtics came as a player-coach when Russell broke the league's color barrier for head coaches.
But Russell also unflinchingly spoke out against the discrimination he experienced in Boston and beyond. Russell led the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi after Medgar Evers' assassination in 1963 and participated in the March on Washington months later. He vocally supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Russell also was one of nearly a dozen Black athletes who publicly stood alongside Muhammad Ali at the 1967 Cleveland Summit following Ali's conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.
Russell has not stopped speaking out, even using his Twitter account to kneel in solidarity with NFL players who protested during the anthem in 2017 and writing in the Boston Globe last week about his sincere hope that "real, lasting change will finally be realized." Former President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom in 2011, and the NBA gave him its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
His on-court accomplishments lent him a platform, but Russell has continually used it for causes far greater than himself. Russell's legacy is one worth honoring and remembering, and the now-open spot near Coit Tower -- nestled in the city where he attended college and across the bay from where he grew up -- is a fitting place to do so.
Scores of men and women are worthy of the honor, and monuments to their legacies can inspire current and future generations. But few will stand as tall as Bill Russell.
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