'Take 'em down': Grizzlies coach David Fizdale calls for removal of Memphis' Confederate monuments

Grizzlies coach David Fizdale has strong opinions on the tragic events in Charlottesville, the president’s response to them, and how the city of Memphis should proceed. (AP)
Grizzlies coach David Fizdale has strong opinions on the tragic events in Charlottesville, the president’s response to them, and how the city of Memphis should proceed. (AP)

During his first season as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, David Fizdale made it plain that he wasn’t averse to loudly and clearly speaking his mind on matters that upset him. On Wednesday, he made it clear that willingness extends to white supremacy, statues honoring Confederate icons, and President Donald Trump.

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During an interview with Wendi C. Thomas of the nonprofit reporting project MLK50, Fizdale said he felt compelled to raise his voice in “the climate that’s going on in America” in the aftermath of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a young man killed a young woman by driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

“I just felt like it’s time for people to either stand up or get out of the way,” Fizdale said. “We’ve got to start changing the climate back to a place where people feel welcome, where people feel like they’re protected. Where people feel love, fairness. And I think right now, with the way things are being addressed, I think people don’t feel comfortable. People are starting to feel a little worried about where we’re going as Americans.”

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed last Saturday when a car driven by James Alex Fields Jr., 20, plowed into a crowd of people protesting the “Unite the Right” rally. The white supremacist gathering sought, in part, to oppose the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. who commanded the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, who owned slaves and who viewed slavery as “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race,” claiming that “the painful discipline [black people] are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race.

At least 19 others were injured in the incident. Fields fled the scene in his car, but was later apprehended, arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Two Virginia State Police pilots, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, 40, also died Saturday after the helicopter in which they were flying to monitor the white supremacist rally crashed just outside Charlottesville.

“I can’t sit and watch this,” Fizdale said. “Not in a city where Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago. Where we have, even today, a statue in our city of a known [Ku Klux] Klansman, right here in this beautiful city of Memphis, with all these incredibly wonderful people. It’s unacceptable. It will no longer stand. I think you’re seeing it all over America — people are not standing for it anymore. It’s a black eye on our history.”

To that end, on the topic of the Confederate monuments still standing within Memphis’ city limits, Fizdale offered a simple message to the city’s elected officials: “Take ’em down.”

“I don’t know what the hesitation is,” Fizdale said. “I don’t know what we’re waiting on.”

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The Memphis City Council voted in 2015 to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, from a downtown park. Shortly thereafter, state lawmakers voted to amend the Tennessee Heritage Preservation Act to require approval before “disturbing” statues of historic military figures. Doing so now requires a waiver from the state Historical Commission, which has to date rejected Memphis’ applications.

City officials have encouraged residents to voice their support for removing the statue, but have said they “will not break the law” or “direct city employees to break the law” to do so. As Fizdale sees it, the legal wrangling only allows an irreducible injustice to persist.

“Whatever gets those things down immediately, we got to do it, because it splits people apart,” Fizdale said. “It creates a public safety hazard, having that thing in our city. The fact that Dr. King was killed here 50 years ago, and that the Civil Rights Museum sits here in our city, and for that to be out in the open, hanging out, where kids go, where families go — I don’t want that in our city any more […]

“To our public officials, I’m challenging you to not put a bunch of red tape in front of us, don’t create all these silly loopholes through the law, and this and that. Take it down. Get it out of our city. Get it out of sight, and let our city move forward and into the future, and be an example to the rest of the country of how the worst thing ever in civil rights history, our greatest leader, was murdered here, But we’re going to start here to build and grow great relationships between all races right here in Memphis.”

For the biracial Fizdale, the footage from Saturday’s march in Charlottesville of white supremacists giving Nazi salutes and chanting phrases like “Jew will not replace us” struck a particularly personal chord.

“My white grandparents fought Nazis,” Fizdale said. “They met in [World War II]. They fell in love in the war, fighting Nazis — kicking Nazis’ ass, actually. And now, here we are, 50 years later, in the streets of America, Nazis are running young white women over who are standing against them. It’s just unacceptable.

“And so, as a leader in this community, as a person who cares about his community, and the city and the people in this city, I’m not just going sit back and watch this and just be on the sidelines. So I’m getting actively involved. I think the city has seen that about me, you know, from day one, wherever it’s needed, especially when it comes to peace and justice. I’m going to be a part of that. And so, I’m calling on all of our citizens to actively get involved in fixing this problem. Especially our white citizens. Because until this becomes absolutely unacceptable to you, it’ll continue.”

Fizdale’s remarks come in the wake of President Trump’s shifting and widely criticized response to the violence in Charlottesville.

Trump’s initial remarks on Saturday condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” a framing that elicited sharp rebukes from those who believed the president should have specifically chastised — or, at least, mentioned by name — the white supremacist activists behind the rally at which the incident took place. Two days later, Trump made a second statement, declaring that “racism is evil” and saying “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

One day after that statement, however, the president held a fiery news conference in which he doubled down on his first take. Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist/counter-protester divide, that “there is blame on both sides,” and that taking down statues of Confederate leaders would lead to “changing history [and] changing culture.”

These comments met with praise from, among other parties, former KKK imperial wizard David Duke, and criticism from, among other parties, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James and members of several WNBA teams.

Fizdale, for his part, found the president’s comparisons between the demonstrators on “both sides” — those who marched to promote white supremacy and to defend Confederate monuments, and those who have marched under the banner of Black Lives Matter — to be “disgusting.”

“I mean, what are we talking about?” Fizdale said. “How can you even say that? You watch those people march up the street with their little — they’re so ridiculous looking with their Tiki torches; I mean, they’ve actually got Tiki torches, that says enough — but you see them marching up the street and what’s coming out of their mouths, and you tell me that they’re just there quietly protesting? And you’re telling me that there were some good people in that crowd? You can’t say that.

“If you’re standing next to those people with a torch, and whether your mouth is closed or open, if they’re saying that, on the way to that march, and you’re a good person, you get out of that line. You get as far away from that line as possible. So the fact that they was in unison, chanting, marching, saying all of these things, you can’t tell me there’s a good person in that crowd. And for [Trump] to put those protesters that were there to stop them in the same boat as those awful, evil people that’s there to just wreak havoc on that beautiful city — I’ve been to that city, Charlottesville is an awesome city — for those guys to come from all over the country to converge on that city with guns, automatic weapons, bats, bulletproof gear, riot gear … they were there to protest?”

Fizdale also took issue with what he sees as a double-standard behind the unwillingness to categorize Fields driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters as an act of domestic terrorism.

“If you put a Muslim in that car, what are you calling that person? Right? It’s, ‘You’re a terrorist,'” he said. “For this to happen, and for our president to sit here and put that on the same level as people trying to fight hate and bigotry, peacefully, and standing up for their country and their city and saying, ‘This is not acceptable here,’ when our country went to war, and millions of people died from that war, and now you’re letting it happen on our streets? You can’t put that on the same level.

“For anyone who can sit there and defend his comments: you’re either stupid, honestly, you’re either just stupid or you’re sick. That’s how I’m looking at it. By ‘sick,’ I mean you’re totally delusional in the mind. You’re totally like — there is something going on internally with you that’s not right. Because there’s no way you can listen to those comments, agree with what he said, and do it with a sound, common sense logic. I’m sorry, there’s just no way I can see you saying that.”

Fizdale said he feels a call to action, and an opportunity for Memphis — the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed 50 years ago — to play a pivotal role in making a positive change for the country.

“Fifty years later, he is speaking to us from the grave and telling us to stand up to this crap that we’re seeing, that’s festering in our country, that our president has seemed to deem OK and label as equal [to] people who are fighting for love and fighting hate and bigotry and all of those things,” Fizdale said. “We’ve got to listen to Dr. King. There’s no way, with me being the head coach in the city of Memphis that I will sit on the sidelines and disgrace his legacy, my grandfather’s legacy, and let somebody destroy something that we built in America that I think can be exemplary.”

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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