An Imperfect Dividing Line for Honor

America still wrestles with names, symbols and statues.  But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some of the nation’s idols are falling faster than I can type.  Just today came news that Princeton University is removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from their school of public policy and a residential college.  Woodrow Wilson famously screened the pro-Klan Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915.  Earlier this week, the city council of Charleston, South Carolina voted unanimously to remove a statue of John C. Calhoun from their city square (and the removal work has already started, likely with a museum as its final destination).  In addition to serving as Vice President, Secretary of State, and senator, Calhoun was perhaps this country’s most ardent defender of chattel slavery. The reckoning has even spread abroad, with protesters in Bristol, England pitching a statue of Edward Colston (a slave trader) into the harbor and Belgium beginning to remove statues of King Leopold II (brutal colonizer of the Congo).

Resistance to removing these men and certain symbols from places of honor still continues however.  While Mississippi has begun the process of considering a new state flag (minus the Confederate flag insert), the current flag still has its defenders. A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest (whose Confederate troops massacred black soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow, and later led the Ku Klux Klan) still stands in the Tennessee state house after an 11-5 vote against removing it in favor of another Tennessee historical figure.

Two things prompt my attempt to craft a dividing line (however imperfect) for honor:

  1. The toppling of a Ulysses S. Grant statue in San Francisco
  2. News of protesters’ demands for the removal of an emancipation memorial in Washington, DC.

In my view, if someone fought to create the country in the Revolutionary War, fought to preserve the country during the Civil War, supported Reconstruction, or were responsible for desegregating anything at all, that is sufficient cause to leave up any statue of them or leave their name on any building or public facility where it may be–whatever other flaws and shortcomings that individual may have.

Adam Serwer’s defense of Grant is reason enough that no state of Grant should ever be abused in such a fashion.  Professor Aderson Francois adds Grant’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and in a congressional commission that studied post-Civil War terrorism against black men and women in the South.

Professor David Blight (perhaps the best living authority on Frederick Douglass), writes an eloquent defense of The Freedmen’s Memorial.  Before reading his column, there was so much about the monument I did not know:

Professor Blight closes with a most constructive idea of how to add context to imperfect monuments to flawed men:

Rather than take down this monument to Lincoln and emancipation, create a commission that will engage new artists to represent the story of black freedom from one generation to the next. Let today’s imaginations take flight. Perhaps commission a statue of Douglass himself delivering this magnificent speech. So much new learning can take place by the presence of both past and present. As a nation, let’s replace a landscape strewn with Confederate symbols with memorialization of emancipation. Tearing down the Freedmen’s Memorial would be a terrible start for that epic process.

In response to the Blight column (which I shared with friends on Facebook), one of them asked me if I felt monuments to Thomas Jefferson should be torn down. Here is my response to him:

The short answer is no. The longer answer is while the hypocrisy of certain of the founders of the United States re: chattel slavery is obvious, they were trying to build a nation. I favor Dr. Blight’s approach of adding more context. The Confederate States of America and those who led it (by contrast) betrayed the nation the founders built and had the explicit goal of breaking this nation in two for the purpose of preserving and expanding the institution of chattel slavery. Statues of those who supported the Confederacy were erected to support the myth of the Lost Cause, and in concert with violence and terrorist acts against black people, despite the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. With the exception of tombstones and gravesites, I would not preserve a single Confederate monument on public land were it up to me. Strike Confederate names from every military base, every road, every school, and/or other public facility as well.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin is a place I’ve visited many times.  The words of the Declaration of Independence inscribed on one of its panels are clearly at odds with Jefferson’s treatment of the enslaved and profit from chattel slavery.  Monticello, Jefferson’s primary plantation, is attempting to address this contradiction even today.   When it comes to the Founding Fathers, hagiography has characterized too much of our treatment of them.  As more is revealed, it seems that what we have been taught as history looks more like propaganda.  Continued denial of the unsavory, hypocritical, and contradictory beliefs and actions of America’s founders serves the nation poorly.  But destruction of their monuments may not serve us any better.