Civil rights

In Lieu of Statues

“An idea is a greater monument to God than a cathedral.” These words were spoken by Spencer Tracy in the film, “Inherit the Wind.” They are part of a lengthier monologue in which he discusses the individual human mind and the idea of progress. In a movie replete with memorable quotes, the one above is probably my favorite.

The recent movement to remove statues commemorating various Confederate generals, coupled with the suggestion to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis, left me wondering. Do we approach our history from a perspective of immediacy and expediency, rather than principle?

Not unlike other cultures and countries, we lionize our past leaders—at least the ones we believe embodied the values we hold dear. There are, of course, exceptions. No other country would memorialize traitors. And, in fact, we have no statues to honor Benedict Arnold. He is the bane of the American Revolution. Then, why did we ever erect statues to honor the traitors who led the South during the Civil War? These monuments are a perfect example of bending history (and facts) to the expediency of the moment.

As has been pointed out in numerous journals and history tomes, most of those statues were built long after the war, the majority in the early part of the 20th Century. Had America forgotten the tragedy, the internecine conflict that tore apart not only a nation, but also families? No. But honoring these traitors served an agenda—the furtherance of white supremacy. As a result, while the violence had ended one could conceivably argue that the Civil War, itself, did not. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery, these statues espoused the clear conviction that blacks were subservient to whites, that segregation was natural and proper—all resulting in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And continuing today.

But there are also memorials to people that the entire country can hold in esteem. The most obvious examples would seem to be the Founding Fathers. In August 2017 President Trump lamented the removal of statues to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, complaining that monuments to Washington and Jefferson would be next. Trump does not know enough history to be prescient, so it was quite by accident that he stumbled on the question of whether we should honor even our Founding Fathers with statues.

Consider the unpleasant truths buried within American history. Many, if not most, Americans believe that Washington was not only a great general and president, but that he freed his slaves. He did no such thing. Or consider Jefferson, whose brilliant, philosophical and enlightened mind crafted the Declaration of Independence, which in its original draft condemned slavery. In spite of that he not only did not free his slaves, he enslaved even his own children, his progeny with Sally Hemings. Are these men really role models?

This brings us to the current movement to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after John Lewis. Lewis was a man who commanded great respect for his lifelong commitment to equality, justice and civil rights, especially voting rights. I admire him greatly and consider him as much the heart of the civil rights movement as was Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis gave his life, literally to the edge of death, in service of civil rights. But there is a danger that in death he may be lifted beyond the mere mortal. And future generations may discover the imperfect in John Lewis.

Only after King’s death did his shortcomings surface, reminding us that he was first and foremost a human being. Like all human beings he was imperfect. The same can be said of every great leader of every race. Every president in American history, all but one of whom were white, was human and imperfect. That humanity should not diminish their accomplishments. In fact, it should enhance them, with each person being judged on the merit of their principles and their achievements—or lack thereof.

In Psalm 146 we are cautioned: “Put not your trust in princes, in mortals in whom there is no salvation.” And yet, we need inspiration to strive toward perfection. If we do not find it by honoring those who came before us, where do we? Why not in principles, in movements and in legislation?

The Declaration of Independence, even in its final and less perfect form, is the premier document of the United States of America. Without it there would be no Constitution, another essential but imperfect document. Set aside for a moment the fact that Mt. Rushmore was stolen property and the carving of the presidential images illegal. How much greater would it be to have carved the Declaration of Independence in that rock?

We already have Independence Hall in Philadelphia and multiple Constitution Avenues. We now have Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC. In the case of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, might we not rename it “Bloody Sunday Bridge?” Then we can list the names of those who were beaten while peacefully marching to Selma.

It can be argued that erecting monuments to ideas, principles, movements and legislation serves another purpose. It causes people to think deeper than the image of a hero. It calls a nation to reflection and to the internalization of ideals. It reminds us that the work of justice is never complete. It prevents us from resting the on the laurels of those who came before us. It demands that we take up the mantel and be the force of change in our generation.

Perhaps future generations will see a Suffrage High School in every county. Or Voting Rights Parks dotting the landscape. Or downtown libraries named for Civil Rights. We are limited only by our ideals and our imaginations. Not only is an idea a greater monument to God than a cathedral. It is also a greater monument to heroes than a statue.

Déjà Vu

Oppression and injustice, not unlike revolutions, always begin small. A cadre of like-minded individuals gain influence among a modest group of people, then they establish policies and doctrines that cement their authority over others, frequently minorities.

In South Africa, for example, the National Party started out as a disgruntled band of Afrikaners who wanted to assert power over the native blacks who had inhabited the land for hundreds of years. To be fair, the National Party also considered themselves natives (without the barbaric and uncivilized connotations), since their Dutch ancestors had arrived at the Cape in the sixteen hundreds. Without being too simplistic, their history was the same as every other colonial power: a conquering country arrives and steals the land of the native people, claiming it for their own.

From the vantage point of the Afrikaners, they built the country, bringing modern technology and western civilization to the natives. Of course, their concept of civilization did not include any measure of equality such as sharing the land or the resources or the wealth. Their building of the land depended on enslaving the natives, eventually corralling them into townships and so-called homelands.

It is tempting to forgive people who claim that that kind of slavery and injustice are over. It is part of our past, they say. Not our present. Even in the United States the Supreme Court, i.e. the Republican appointees, have begun defanging and stripping significant power from the civil rights legislation claiming that it is no longer needed. Even where voting rights have been historically denied or curtailed in the offending southern states the Court now says there is no longer a need for protections. Equality has come to the land they say. It is not so tempting, however, to forgive those five justices—they should know better. In case there is any doubt regarding the blatant blindness of the Court, we have Ferguson, Missouri.

Not unlike the Afrikaners, a cadre of white individuals has staked a claim over the city, controlling its power structure and policing. As happens all-too-frequently in the U.S. an unarmed black man was killed by a white cop. Missouri, by the way, is a southern state.

You’ve got to hand it to Ferguson, though. At least in South Africa the government hired and bribed black policemen to kill black citizens. That’s too subtle for Ferguson. Just let a white man do it. In the open. In broad daylight. In fact, shoot him six times with one of the bullets entering the head execution style. If this sounds as though I am playing a race card or fanning the flames of discontent, consider:

Michael Brown, as we all know, was unarmed. Initially the city officials gave little information about the shooting and when they did, the statements were inconsistent and incoherent, sometimes even flat out contradictory. We were told the officer knew Michael Brown was a suspect in a convenience store altercation. Then we were told the officer knew nothing of the kind. We were told that Brown was stopped for walking in the street, apparently a very serious crime in Ferguson,k one that can lead to death.

For one week the name of the officer, Darren Wilson, was withheld. As is typical in these cases we were told how wonderful and highly regarded the officer is. Apparently Wilson is a good guy who just shoots unarmed people. In the Old West it was called “circling the wagons.” Today it is just called protecting your own. Hmm. And I thought the police were supposed to protect the civilians.

This satirical tone is rooted in the fact that this kind of incident is not unusual, and achieving justice has become nearly impossible. Juries are reluctant to convict a police officer for shooting a suspect—even when the citizen is not suspected of do anything wrong. The officer simply claims he was in fear of his life. Apparently, too many white cops are afraid of unarmed black civilians. This is unfortunate, for there are more than enough examples of officers shooting in true self-defense. And no one wants to see police killed in the line of duty. Hence the jury tendency to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. But…

One has to wonder how the police department and city officials would react if a black officer killed an unarmed white citizen? It was not that long ago that black men were routinely and unjustly lynched after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. Maybe the Supreme Court is wrong and racial prejudice and injustice are not just memories. Wait a minute. No. Not maybe. The Supreme Court
is wrong.

My earlier reference to the Old West is underscored by the fact that Wilson shot Brown at high noon. At least in the movie of the same name, Gary Cooper shot people who were really trying to kill him! At the very least, police officers need to know that unlike Marshall Kane, or Wyatt Earp; unlike James Bond even; being given a badge and a gun is not a license to kill.

Note to the Supreme Court, to Congress and to the authorities in Ferguson. We can no longer tolerate this kind of déjà vu.