Fighting the rhetorical Civil War
Americans should take a civics lesson from the debate over Confederate statues.
Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington are engaging in a rhetorical civil war about the presence of Confederate monuments inside the Capitol following the tragedy in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. While neither national party is free from the stain of revisionist history, at the core of this current effort to take down symbols of hate is a decades-old battle about political meaning in civil society.
Last month leaders in Congress called for the removal of several Confederate statues from National Statutory Hall, where several have been on display since Virginia provided a Robert E. Lee statue in 1909. Members of Congress have walked past those statues for over 100 years with mixed feelings. In 2008, nine years before our current debate about the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, his statue was relocated from its prominence in Statuary Hall to the Capitol Crypt. Who replaced him in the hall? A statute of Rosa Parks.
Former congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. sponsored a bill in 2005 to get the Joint Committee on the Library to place the Parks statue inside National Statutory Hall, and President George W. Bush signed it into law on December 1, 2005 – the same month 50 years earlier when Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. The instillation of the Parks statue is historic because it was the first statue commissioned by Congress since 1873, and the first African-American statue on display in the U.S. Capitol.
While, to be sure, the relocation of that Lee statue took courage, the total removal of all Confederate statues from the Capitol was never a major priority of any presidential administration or congressional speakership. Each statue is a gift from a state, so state action is required for replacement. For example, Alabama officials approved the replacement of Confederate lawmaker Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, which it donated to Congress in 1908, with a statue of Helen Keller, a champion for the education of blind and deaf students as well as a humanitarian. If members of Congress want to replace all Confederate statutes, they need to work with state leaders. It has been done before.
It is worth noting the debate about removing Confederates and slaveholders from public display is not confined to the cloisters of Capitol Hill. For instance, several African-American organizations in New Orleans lobbied school officials to remove the name of Confederates and slaveholders from its public schools in the early 1990s. Why? “To maintain these names is another badge of inferiority slapped on your children,” said Malcolm Suber to the school board in 1990. In 1992, the board approved a policy to allow a school to change its name if the principal, teachers, and parents agreed. Soon afterward, Jefferson Davis Elementary School (named for the former President of the Confederate States) was renamed after Ernest N. Dutch Morial, the first African-American mayor of the city. Later the district approved a request to rename George Washington Elementary School (named after the non-Confederate yet slaveholding first President of the United States) the Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary, after a famous African-American doctor. This decision was met with praise because, to some “African-Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke.” The name change met with criticism, too.
It is also worth noting the debate about removing a slaveholder’s name from a public school is not confined to the South. George Washington Public High School in San Francisco opened its doors to students in 1936. The murals inside the school are one of its noble attributes, which a resolution passed by the City and County of San Francisco acknowledged in 2011. One is a 1,300 square feet mural depicting the life of George Washington. Victor Arnautoff painted the mural with support from the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP), a New Deal initiative created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One goal of PWAP was for artists to lift the spirits of people living in the grips of the Great Depression during the 1930s through art about “the American Scene.” According to one source about the motive of Arnautoff’s work:
[T]he murals present a counter narrative to the high school history texts of the time: the panel on Mount Vernon emphasizes Washington’s dependence on slave labor, and that on the westward “march of the white race” (Arnautoff’s description) shows it taking place over the body of dead Indian.
A portion of the mural depicts George Washington with his slaves working on a plantation. It has been on display for 81 years. Thousands of teachers, staff, and students have seen it. In September 2016, San Francisco Board of Education President Matt Haney said he would introduce a resolution to replace the name of “George Washington” on the public high school. Why? He was a slaveholder, of course.
“We need to have a conversation about this,” Haney said. “Especially at George Washington High School. We have school names in San Francisco that are not relevant or meaningful or inspire pride.” I give Haney credit for calling for a conversation before the paintbrushes arrive. I also give him credit for bringing students into the picture. “Numerous students have told me that they’re disturbed by the mural,” he said. “Students have told me that they walk in and it’s disturbing, it’s painful.”
This is probably true. Students’ disdain for the portrayal of black people in the mural is not new. According to painter Dewey Crumpler, in 1966 the student wing of the Black Panther Party complained that the George Washington High School mural depicted blacks in a negative light. They wanted to see “positive contributions and strengths of African Americans and not this slave stuff.” The mural was not replaced; instead, Crumpler was commissioned by school leaders to paint a mural inside the school that spoke to a fuller experience of black life in America.
In the end, as National Statutory Hall and public schools become epicenters to rewrite (or re-fight) the Civil War or the place of the founding generation in modern memory, let us use each place as a classroom to teach lessons in civics. Doing so can address real concerns about the past, expand our understanding of it and all people involved, and create a foundation worth building a future together.
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