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Column: Judging those of other times by 2019 cultural norms is not useful
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

Henry Grady has offended some students at Georgia State University. The namesake of the Grady school of journalism at the University of Georgia was a racist.

His statue, erected in 1891 at the intersection of Marietta and Forsyth streets in downtown Atlanta, should be moved out of the public square and into a museum, the students argued in an editorial in the Georgia State Signal student newspaper addressed to Atlanta’s mayor.

I should note that I did not graduate from the Grady school of journalism, though I have friends and colleagues who did. 

Grady is known for his efforts to sway Northerners to invest in Atlanta industries, arguing black people enjoyed “fair treatment” throughout the South, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

African Americans don’t enjoy fair treatment today in many regards, and the idea they received fair treatment in the 1890s is absurd. This is a time when talking about lynching someone meant actually lynching him. Between 1882 and 1968, 581 lynchings were recorded in Georgia, according to the NAACP

Grady clearly believed the white race to be superior, at least according to one speech available online, in which he stated, “But the supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the negro race resisted at all points and at all hazards — because the white race is the superior race.”

Most of us, though not all, have moved beyond such obvious racism.

But thanks to a state law passed earlier this year by the legislature, Grady’s statue likely isn’t moving anywhere.

Should it? 

Following the Civil War, Grady helped establish Atlanta as the hub of the South and helped spur economic development in the entire region, moving it toward industry from agriculture during Reconstruction. He was also an influential editor at The Atlanta Constitution.

The statue itself was funded from “public subscriptions” from throughout the country, according to the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs.

Inscriptions on the statue call for unity between all parts of the country, North, South, East and West.

The Georgia State Signal editorial is well-written and presents some strong arguments. But at the end of the day, the writers are applying 2019 cultural norms to a man living in the late 19th century. 

Was he a racist? Of course. 

Is racism wrong. Of course.

Was he more racist than others of his time period? Likely not.

Does the statue celebrate racist values? I don’t think so. It celebrates the skills and influence of a man who seemingly worked to promote the South and a way forward as a united country following the Civil War. All of this took place in a time period in which racism was the unfortunate status quo and thus his work was permeated by that racism.

We can agree his views were wrong without dismissing the good work he accomplished.

It’s difficult to look at previous points in history and understand how the injustices of slavery or Jim Crow laws were allowed to persist, and it’s easy to judge the generations who allowed them. 

Even in my short lifetime, cultural norms have changed. I sat “Indian style” in elementary school and wouldn’t have thought twice about dressing up as someone of another nationality for Halloween. 

Having greater understanding and consideration of how those actions affect those with different backgrounds is good. Judging people outside of their own cultural context, though, is less useful.

It’s difficult to look forward 128 years and guess what the cultural norms of that time may be. What will we be harshly judged for believing? 

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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