During the recent ceremony marking the unveiling of the Christopher Columbus statue at the John Weichsel municipal building on North Main Street, it was obvious to the several hundred people in attendance that an inspiring speech was necessary to confirm community support and to overshadow the dozen protestors.
Following several traditional welcoming speeches by officials of the Knights of Columbus, UNICO, Sons of Italy and others, it was time for Southington’s state senator to come to the microphone. Joe Markley then delivered a four-page talk that drew a standing ovation when he concluded. Markley carefully carved his remarks to emphasize Columbus’ contribution to our current civilization. He masterfully portrayed Columbus, not as a hero, but a common man who, despite human flaws, was a hero to Italian-Americans.
While many quietly questioned the location of the statue, it was favorably greeted by those who rose from their chairs to applaud the speakers while protesters admirably were verbally subdued, but stubborn in holding their hand-made signs that showed their dislike of the entire decision to honor Columbus statue or no statue.
The unsettling of our current society’s acceptance of historical figures reached into this suburb that seldom sees protests other than on television news. Southington is one of the traditional New England towns that have graciously accepted the Irish, German, Polish and Italian immigrants while becoming a welcoming place for recent immigrants. There was a time, not too long ago, when few could find a Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, Albanian or Turkish eatery in Southington.
Was Columbus just a small part of immigration to this great land of opportunity? Here’s part of Markley’s speech.
“Today we honor a man who challenged the greatest single barrier in his world and banished it forever, who brought about the inevitable collision and permanent conjoining of the two halves of our planet.
“Consider the limit on our understanding of the past. History is the study of worlds we can never directly apprehend. It’s impossible to go back and live in another time, to know its facts and feelings, its smells and savors. The only time travel we experience is personal, one day at a time and one direction only, from cradle to grave.”
Markley, who has announced he wants to be the GOP candidate for Lt. Governor, then added, “Truth is, we can’t really understand the present either. People alive at a given moment don’t know much more of their world than their own tiny fraction of it, and disagree among themselves about what is happening right before their eyes.”
Protesters were consistent in their opposition to Columbus being honored, blasting him as a racist, rapist and some other things. Markley smoothly addressed the opposition. “Even those of us gathered here today, in celebration or in protest, at the same moment and in the same spot, differ on the significance of the public act we witness. Let us rejoice that whatever our opinion, we are together peacefully and respectfully, all members of one community.”
In the early 1960s, the Italian community in town, led by the UNICO organization, got the town fathers to name a new street from the center of town to Liberty Street Columbus Avenue. Over 50 years later, Italian leaders and others raised enough money to keep Columbus’ name alive, if not tarnished briefly.
There are many who believe the statue will suffer some indignation sooner than later. Police and town officials have setup a security apparatus that includes late night patrols and security camera. Perhaps the concerns that vandalism might occur sooner or later will diminish with time. The statue is a symbol of the Italian community and some have indicated damage to it would enflame emotional responses.
Markley closed his speech with, “I am proud that our town has chosen to honor Columbus for his achievement at this time when some wish only to condemn him for his trespasses. I believe we show wisdom by embracing this great story that unites us, and by celebrating the unique significance of Christopher Columbus, the value of the civilization that arose in his wake, and the qualities of leadership and courage he displayed in that endeavor which ever stand as history’s greatest single discovery.”