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No more honors for bigots

Melvin B. Miller
No more honors for bigots
“How am I supposed to be inspired by a statue of a guy who fought to keep my folks in slavery?” (Photo: Dan Drew)

There is a common practice across America for communities to erect statues or monuments to honor the achievements of local residents. For those whose accomplishments are less prodigious, it is customary to place their names on buildings, public squares or streets. The objective is to imbed in the culture the character of the honoree to serve as a role model for future generations. But now protestors have begun to challenge the worthiness of some of those who have been so memorialized.

The strongest protests against such challenges come from those trying to preserve the memory of the Southern Confederacy. They argue that the destruction of Civil War monuments constitutes an unwarranted revision of history. Conversely, some Yankees find it peculiar that the country tolerates the preservation of the memorabilia of a treasonous effort to divide the nation. Conciliation of the two perspectives is probably not possible, but those pushing for change would be wise to follow a sound standard.

Slavery and quasi-slavery were so extensive in the 17th and 18th centuries that participation in those practices alone should not be enough to disqualify an early American from being historically noteworthy. An estimated 41 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. Also, half to two-thirds of the whites who came to America during that period were indentured servants. They were essentially purchased from shipowners and were legally obligated to work for their masters for a period of years to repay the cost of their passage.

Enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution rendered illegal both of those forms of servitude. A slave owner as cruel as Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” should never qualify for a favorable historical remembrance even if his victims were indentured servants rather than slaves. Aside from the issue of physical cruelty, protesters also are concerned about the propagation of racist ideas that are demeaning to blacks and could foster psychological damage.

In 2002 the Cambridge School Committee voted to remove the name Louis Agassiz from a grammar school. They thought it quite inconsistent to name a school with many black pupils after a scholar who disseminated a theory of genetic black inferiority. The school was renamed the Maria L. Baldwin, after the first black principal in New England of a racially mixed school.

There has been a continuing conflict in Selma, Ala. about the location on public lands of a statue of Civil War Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. He violated civilized rules of military engagement by massacring his prisoners of war. He also failed to win the battle of Selma to secure the armory there. After the war he became the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Although the black citizens of Selma are 66 percent of the population, it appears that they will lose the battle to prevent the aggrandizement of such a vicious man.

Just recently the city council of New Orleans voted 6-1 to remove the statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Opposition to the move is just becoming organized.

Universities are not immune to the conflict. Last April, students at the University of Cape Town removed the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Now Oxford students also want to dissolve the university’s connection with Rhodes. Some students at Princeton University want to terminate any relationship with Woodrow Wilson, who fired blacks in government service solely for reasons of racial discrimination when he was president. And students at Yale want to rename Calhoun College, which was named after Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a racist leader of the Civil War.

The battle for new identities has just begun in earnest.

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