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As Britain struggles to come to terms with its colonial past, the legacy of its most famous wartime leader is under scrutiny
The issue of whether Winston Churchill, who led the country to victory in World War II, was a racist, is being fiercely debated
When an artist wrote “was a racist” on the statue of Churchill, who this year celebrates the 80th anniversary of his premiership, it reopened an old wound
British society remains divided on the issue
A recent poll found that one in five people now think that the statue should be removed.
LONDON — As we stood outside the Houses of Parliament, George Johnson, a 26-year-old black man, was holding a microphone.
He was leading a group of protesters calling for the removal of a statue of Britain’s former prime minister Winston Churchill in the heart of London’s bustling financial district.
“We’re going to make sure this comes down,” he said, pointing to the statue.
Johnson is part of a global movement that seeks to confront and reassess the legacies of historical figures with controversial pasts, including Churchill.
As George Johnson spoke, a diverse group of people — from young children to pensioners — gathered around the statue with banners and placards bearing messages like “Churchill was a racist” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Johnson’s argument is that Churchill had racist attitudes and exhibited them throughout his life.
His views have been shared by many historians who have pointed out that Churchill’s views on race were not dissimilar to those of other leaders during his time.
But as the world changes and seeks to come to terms with its past, Johnson is one of many who believe the statue should be taken down.
“[Churchill] may have been an important figure to some people in this country but he also said and did things that were terrible,” Johnson said.
In recent years, it has become more common for people to revisit historical figures’ legacies in order to fix or change them.
But Johnson is not alone in his views.
According to a YouGov poll, one in five British people agree with him and think the statue should be removed.
However, the majority still think it should stay.
Why the debate over Churchill?
The issue has captured the imagination of British society, as the country continues to grapple with its colonial past.
Churchill has long been celebrated in Britain for his leadership during World War II, when he led the country as prime minister from 1940-45 and then again from 1951-55.
In 2002, the BBC’s History Magazine declared him the greatest Briton ever.
But growing up in the United Kingdom, I also remember learning in school about Churchill’s controversial side — particularly his views on race and empire, which are now at the heart of this debate in the UK and around the world.
Churchill was born in 1874 into an aristocratic family and became a Conservative MP at the age of 26.
During his long political career, he served as president of the Board of Trade, home secretary, first lord of the admiralty, and chancellor of the exchequer.
But he is best known as the man who led Britain to victory in World War II.
However, his views on race and empire were also well documented.
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In 1937, Churchill told a Royal Commission about India that “I hate Indians.
“They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” In 1935, he gave a speech at the Conservative party conference in which he talked about the “appalling massacres” that had taken place in Germany and said “we are not going to stand by and see that kind of thing go on.”
The speech was met with applause.
In 1943, Churchill told the war cabinet: “I hate Indians.
They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.
The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”
In 1941, he said the same thing about the famine in Ukraine caused by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, which killed millions of people.
But Churchill’s views on race were not just confined to India.
During the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, Churchill declared he was “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” The British government did not follow through with using gas but some 150,000 Kikuyu people were confined to detention camps, where thousands died.
The British government has since apologised for the treatment of the Kenyan people.
A few hundred years earlier than that, Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, enslaved 500,000 Irish people.
“We will not stand by and let this continue,” Johnson said as he began his speech.
“What does Churchill mean to you?”
Johnson asked the audience.
“He was a racist.”
Johnson replied, adding, “This is not an attack on you or your family.
It’s an attack on the system that thinks it’s acceptable to have statues put up by racists.”
Some protesters talked about Churchill’s views on empire.
Others talked about his policies and how they had impacted people around the world, such as his decision to divert food supplies to troops during World War II, which led to a famine in Bengal.
Around four million people are believed to have died in the famine.
“Churchill knew what he was doing when he diverted food supplies away from the people in Bengal,” Johnson said.
Families were forced to eat rats and insects, he said.
Johnson’s speech is just one example of how people are using protests and demonstrations to call for the removal of controversial statues.
Statues have been seen as a way for people to remember important figures and events throughout history.
But Johnson and others believe that statues should be taken down if the people who they commemorate held racist attitudes or did bad things.
“Take them down, melt them down,” Johnson said.
At this, the crowd cheered and repeated his words.
Some protesters tried to put a “Black Lives Matter” sign on the statue of Churchill, but police officers stopped them and formed a protective cordon.
One protester said: “It’s not about history, it’s about human rights.”
Another protester added: “Winston Churchill was a white supremacist.”
As Johnson finished his speech, he told everyone to look at a photo of Churchill on their phone or on a placard.
“Now I want you to rip it up,” Johnson said.
As people began tearing up photos of Churchill, Johnson added: “We will not be silenced.”
As long as there are statues of him “we won’t stop,” he said.
At that point, another speaker began to address the crowd.
“Boris Johnson, take it down!”
the speaker said, referring to Britain’s current prime minister.
he crowd repeated after him.
As Johnson and other protesters are showing, there are growing calls for Britain to deal with its colonial past.
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