Few of us are likely to withstand the withering judgment of those who come after us, whatever our positive contributions to humankind might be.
Around the nation, statues and monuments are in the cross-hairs of those who deem them unworthy to stand. The University of North Carolina (UNC)–Chapel Hill for months has had an open, festering wound, after an angry crowd last summer pulled down the statue of Silent Sam, which commemorates the UNC students who fought for the Confederacy.
As of December 3, there appears to be a compromise solution: Silent Sam will be relocated to a $5.3 million building on campus. The matter is not fully settled, as it moves on December 14 to a long-delayed final decision by the UNC Board of Governors. Tensions and sharp disagreement are still very much in evidence.
Many partisans on either side of the fight will consider compromise anathema, yet Silent Sam’s judicious relocation could have its own claim to moral authority. While commemorating a group of UNC students of the past, Silent Sam also honors an army that fought to defend slavery and thereby also honors a ghastly heritage. The statue, moreover, has had a long and unsavory popularity with white supremacists.
Perhaps it is appropriate and advantageous that this debate has taken place on the flagship UNC campus. The incident and the ensuing controversy should make us think hard about how we handle history that simultaneously embraces the heroic and the indefensible, the good and the evil of men and women of the past. It could be a beneficial exercise in keeping minds open and capable of understanding the legitimacy of conflicting claims of right and finding ways to accommodate them.
It would be a fine thing, at the end of this long and fraught controversy, for Silent Sam to be a grand learning experience. There are many cases to consider around our nation, and the world, and we can be sure that there will be even more to come. Here is a sampling.
In front of the River Rouge auto factory stands a statue of Henry Ford, his hand resting on the shoulder of a youth carrying industrial designs and looking admiringly into the eyes of the man whom the caption calls, “The Father of Industrial Education.” Ford’s name is on hospitals, schools, roadways, a college, and a museum. It is hard not to be awestruck by the brilliance, vision, and perseverance of the man who transformed transportation and brought productivity to unimagined heights.
But his virulent hatred of Jews belies the gentle pose of the River Rouge statue. Ford funded the printing of 500,000 copies of the infamous, anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” He received praise from Heinrich Himmler and a favorable mention in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Should Ford’s monuments have joined Silent Sam in the dust?
The University of Ghana removed a statue of Mahatma Gandhi because of his degrading words about Africans. But Gandhi also inspired and fought for Indian independence, and the American civil rights movement looked to his teaching. His statue also stands in front of Washington D.C.’s Phillips Collection and the prestigious Cosmos Club. Should this monument in progressive Washington also be in jeopardy?
In 1948, Harry Truman issued executive orders ending segregation in the military and demanding fair employment practices in the civil service. The previous year, he enthusiastically endorsed the formation of the state of Israel.
Yet he also expressed both racist and anti-Semitic sentiments. Truman once said, for example, “I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a n—– or a Chinaman.” He referred to New York City as “k— town.” What aspect of the man should predominate in understanding our history and in how America should commemorate Truman?
Silent Sam honors soldiers who were on the wrong side of history and morality, but the statue also pays tribute to the courage and sacrifice of hundreds of young college students. The same holds for the 257 Virginia Military Institute cadets, some as young as 15, who joined a Confederate army at New Market in 1864 to engage superior Union forces.
Ten fell in battle, and 45 were wounded as they repulsed the Union attack. Confederates they were, but it seems curiously cold-blooded to deny a memorial to their unwavering, youthful courage. Where does this leave us and the many monuments behind which history is tangled and fraught with conflicting values?
There’s a Third Way
There is a third way to which the Silent Sam controversy now stumbles that does not sugarcoat the past but also does not recklessly dismantle it. This path is not always appropriate or feasible, but it has already, in some instances, been successful. Here are two examples.
It is abundantly clear that while building his vast African empire, Cecil Rhodes showed deep contempt for African people and callous disregard for their well-being. There have, not surprisingly, been many calls to remove his monuments, including some from those who were the beneficiaries of the scholarship he established. (No one has yet proposed giving up the money, with interest, that he bequeathed.)
Today, however, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation supports the postgraduate studies of African students. Nelson Mandela drew authority for this initiative from the South African constitution to “come together across the historical divides.”
Princeton University agonized over the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton and later of the United States. A significant body of faculty and students demanded that Princeton remove Wilson’s name from its buildings: Wilson had a pivotal—and controversial—role in American political thought and in international affairs, but his importance in American history is undeniable.
Less widely known until recently is the fact that he was an ardent segregationist who held back progress in civil rights. Princeton struck a compromise: maintaining Wilson’s name on the buildings but educating intensively about his flawed and regressive policies towards African Americans.
A student group, the Open Campus Coalition, deserves particular credit for winning the day with reasoned argument, writing in an open letter to Princeton’s president: “It is not for his contemptible racism, but for his contributions as president of both Princeton and the United States that we honor Wilson. Moreover, if we cease honoring flawed individuals, there will be no names adorning our buildings, no statues decorating our courtyards, and no biographies capable of inspiring future generations.”
“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” So said William Shakespeare. Few of us are likely to withstand the withering judgment of those who come after us, whatever our positive contributions to humankind might be. And what will we have learned from history about the complexity of human experience if the monuments disappear?
Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.