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Essay: Beware the pitfalls of rewriting history

Scrubbing all Confederate symbols and other racial missteps from America’s past isn’t that easy

POSTED: July 12, 2015 12:07 a.m.

It has been with no small amount of puzzlement that I have read the multitude of mea culpas gushing from some of my former newspaper colleagues, many of whom are sons of the South, decrying the sins of the South following the wanton murders of nine people in a church in Charleston, S.C., last month.

My puzzlement stems from this: If you are so ashamed of where you were born and raised and the heritage that is a part of the South, why did it take so long and why did it take the deaths of nine innocent people to reach the conclusions that you did?

Equally puzzling has been their complicity in this rush to rid the world of all things that remind us of the South’s role in the Civil War, including the Confederate battle flag, statues and memorials to the Confederacy and, even more absurdly, suggesting that military posts that bear the names of Confederate generals be renamed since those men were “traitors” to the United States.

This verbal self-flagellation reminds me a bit of what some Shia Muslims do during the Day of Ashura and some Catholic Filipinos do on Good Friday when they scourge themselves with knives to show their devotion to their religion.

But it also is frightfully reminiscent of what the Islamic State is doing in parts of Iraq and Syria by destroying and removing any symbols or artifacts that offend its religious or political sensibilities.

Don’t agree with something? Tear it down, blow it up, or simply get rid of it. It’s a way of rewriting history by denying that it happened. The absurdity of it is breathtaking.

If we were to do this with all our history, we would have little history left.

Let’s look at a few examples in our history of possible racist individuals and their actions that may have been overlooked in our rush to self-righteous indignation in response to the Charleston shootings.

I won’t delve in great detail into the issue of former U.S. presidents who owned slaves. As I have told students to whom I have taught history, we have to try to understand the morals, ethics and principles of the people and the times we are studying and not be too judgmental based on present-day standards.

Was slavery wrong? Owning another human being is and always has been wrong, no matter the person’s race, ethnicity or gender. But it was an accepted practice since before biblical times and while we should not condone the practice, we must endeavor to understand the conditions under which it flourished.

While the U.S. regularly is condemned for its use of slave labor during its founding years, we must remember that long before 1776, the Arabs captured, bought and sold as many if not more slaves from Africa than eventually came to the West.

Only about 20 percent of the estimated 12 million to 15 million slaves that were part of the Western slave trade came to North America. More than 80 percent went to Central and South America. That does not make the practice any less repugnant, but it does provide some historical perspective.

There is no question that those slaves who came to North America were by-and-large the foundation for the South’s shaky agricultural economy. And despite what historical revisionists would like us to believe, slavery was not the sole cause of the Civil War, although it certainly was one of the underlying causes.

If slavery were the sole cause for the Civil War, why did President Abraham Lincoln wait nearly two years into the war before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation? And why did the Emancipation Proclamation free only slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union and not those in the North, where an estimated 1 million of the 4 million slaves in the U.S. lived at that time?

Lincoln’s primary goal was preservation of the Union, not freeing the slaves. In today’s way of thinking, he might have been considered a racist for not freeing all the slaves, not deified as he has been. So should we erase Lincoln from our current rush to politically correct history?

A more recent example is President Woodrow Wilson. His father was a minister and slave owner in Augusta who used his church to house and treat wounded Confederate soldiers during Gen. William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia. By today’s standards, that family background would have prevented Wilson from even considering a run for the presidency.

But Wilson went on to do more to suppress blacks and other people of color. As president of Princeton University, he made an effort to exclude blacks from admission because he did not want the white students disturbed. As president of the U.S., he showed the blatantly racist film “Birth of a Nation” in the White House on several occasions. And in the aftermath of World War I, he sought to have nonwhite nations excluded from the League of Nations.

If we are to follow current thinking, another figure we should consider excising from our historical memory is Winston Churchill, who was an unrepentant racist. While many of his biographers gloss over his views on race, he frequently referred to the Chinese as “chinks” or “pigtails,” and blacks as “blackamoors” or the n-word. The people of India, according to Churchill, “were the beastliest people in the world, next to the Germans.”

Churchill was also an early and eager advocate of eugenics, the pseudo-science that argued for selective breeding to weed out the less desirable elements of society. He even co-authored a bill as a new member of Parliament urging the sterilization of people of lesser intelligence so as to strengthen the white race.

Even the estimable Franklin D. Roosevelt, the darling of social liberals, would occasionally lapse into rhetoric that today would be considered highly prejudicial, if not outright racist.

In a 1942 letter to Churchill regarding the war-time situation in Burma and a highly controversial political leader named U Saw (“U” meaning uncle or mister), Roosevelt expressed his dislike for the Burmese people in these words: “Thank the Lord you have HE-SAW, WE-SAW, YOU-SAW under lock and key. I wish you could put the whole bunch of them into a frying pan with a wall around it and let them stew in their own juice.”

If we are to remove all vestiges of racially divisive individuals and artifacts from sight as the current thinking is encouraging us to do, why should we not do the same with Lincoln, Wilson, Churchill and Roosevelt?

Do we give them a pass because these are men of substance who went on to do other more noble deeds? But if we give them a pass, where is the demarcation line for those we preserve in our history and those we eliminate?

We would be better served as a people and as a nation to not venerate the Confederacy or the Confederate battle flag and the bigotry and prejudice they often represented. Instead, we should remember them in their proper historical perspective and vow never again will we be that divided.

Unfortunately, the current climate of hysterical overreaction serves only to divide us more.

Ron Martz, who grew up in the North but has lived in the South for the past 50 years, is a former journalist and educator and a Northeast Georgia resident.



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