June 17, 2018

How Far We’ve Come

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Two years ago a white racist monster murdered nine African Americans attending a church service.  The revelation that he collected flags and other memorabilia of the Confederacy helped launch a national debate over what to do about flying the Confederate battle flag and maintaining monuments to slave owners and soldiers who had fought for the South.

In several articles written for this column I argued that it was proper to cease flying the confederate flag from government buildings.  The flag had been used to signal resistance to racial equality and integration; its continued display insulted African Americans and rejected the law of the land.  But it could still be flown and otherwise displayed by private citizens to signify their independence, their questioning of authority, or whatever other message they wanted to convey.

But I also questioned the usefulness of removing or destroying physical monuments.  I argued, only partly facetiously, that once we began to do so, we might not know where to stop.  At the time, I wondered what ought to be done to Mount Rushmore, given that two of the four presidents depicted there—Washington and Jefferson—were slave owners.  I could have asked whether we should destroy the Washington Monument, Mount Vernon, the Jefferson Memorial, and Monticello as well.

This controversy, having become dormant, has awakened with discussions of the decision by officials of New Orleans to remove monuments to three leading Confederate icons–Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard.  Some opponents of the decision are denouncing it as an attempt to erase their Southern heritage, perhaps overlooking the role of slavery in the creation and maintenance of that heritage.  But  some of the most insightful arguments against their removal have come from one of the most surprising sources imaginable, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s second term (2005—2009).

When asked about the New Orleans controversy, Secretary Rice said, “I’m a firm believer in keep your history before you.  And so, I don’t actually want to rename things that were named for slave owners. I want us to have to look at the names and recognize what they did and be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history. When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing.” 

She added that America had come a long way since the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, which declared that an African American slave was only three-fifths of a white person for census purposes.  As late as 1952 her father had had trouble registering to vote.  But in 2005, she became the first African American woman to become Secretary of State, and was sworn in by the first Jewish woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

And herein are the best reasons for retaining monuments to slave owners and Confederate political and military leaders.  First, they help measure the real distance America has come since its founding:  Of the original thirteen states, twelve permitted slavery; Massachusetts being the first and only state to have abolished it before the drafting of the Constitution.  Moreover, nine of America’s first twelve presidents owned slaves.  No matter how far we must continue on our long road to liberty and justice for all, the fact remains that we’ve already traveled a great distance, and for that we should be proud, if not satisfied that we’ve done enough. 

Second, while slavery and white supremacy no doubt cast a shadow on our heritage, our willingness to keep these reflections of our past sins affirms American greatness.  Our candor about our past reflects an American type of courage all too rare in the world.  Can anyone seriously imagine that Vladimir Putin or the communist dictators of China or North Korea would ever allow any reminders of the imperialism, slave labor, and genocide of which those regimes are guilty? 

New Orleans has removed its monuments.  However well-meaning its leaders may be, in trying to erase reminders of our darker days they’ve made it more difficult for us to appreciate how far we’ve come.

But throughout the South there are other monuments and memorials.  Some will see them as symbols of an overly-romanticized heritage, but we can also see them as symbols of America’s journey to freedom and our courage in taking that journey.

And let’s not forget that the existence of monuments to supporters of slavery doesn’t preclude monuments to supporters of its abolition, or supporters of the advancement of freedom in general.  Perhaps rather than take down more, we should build more.  There’s nothing wrong with more monuments to Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, etc., etc.  Indeed, the more the merrier.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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