Purged history is bad history

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You may have read about “The Great Renaming Craze of 2015.”
All over this land of ours people are demanding that the names of flawed public figures be removed from the buildings and streets and such, places that were named by people who didn’t know the honoree was flawed, or didn’t think the flaws were much to write home about.
Now let me say up front, I think this is a bad idea.
Why?
Because the folks doing the renaming are taking away what teachers call a “teaching moment” – the opportunity to point out the reason those things were named for those folks in the first place.
Let’s take an example close to home.
Back when I taught at of Jacksonville State University someone thought it might be nice for a senior faculty member to speak to the newly hired, tell them about the school and make them happy to be there.
So they asked me.
Knowing that in addition to new hires, in the audience would be the folks who signed my pay check, I resolved to be on my best behavior, which my wife will tell you is an “iffy” proposition under any circumstances.
I prepared my remarks carefully. I would give them a little history of the place, throw in a few student jokes, mention our athletic prowess, and come down hard on academic excellence – safe stuff.  Then I would finish with a general welcome and sit down.
If only I had.
Instead, inspired by my own eloquence, at the conclusion I went off the prepared script and asked the group  assembled to look out the window (we were on the 11th floor of the Library) and gaze upon Bibb Graves Hall – the administrative center of campus.
“Bibb Graves,” I intoned, “an Alabama governor who did more for education than any governor before (and maybe since) and who was also the Exalted Cyclops of the Montgomery chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Today nine of our universities have buildings named after him – including historically black Alabama State University and Alabama A&M.”
“Reconcile that,” I said in conclusion, “and you are on your way to understanding the state in which you now reside.”
I don’t know how many in the audience went out reconciling, but I suspect that some did ask themselves why so many universities named buildings after a man who led a organization that verbally (and in some cases physically) attacked blacks, Jews, Catholics, and “foreigners” in general?
The answer lay in the fact that Graves, like so many of his era, saw the Klan as a refuge for working class whites who had been cut out of the  political  process by the bankers, industrialists and such that Graves called the “Big Mules.”  As an active Klansman he could count on their votes and in return for their support he promoted programs – education, health care, etc – that benefitted that constituency.   That these programs also benefitted African Americans and others on the Klan “hate list,” only adds to the complexity of the time and of the man.
Bibb Graves was a progressive, a term that is derided in some circles today, but back then reflected the thinking of men like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore’s cousin Franklin.  They wanted to use the power of government to make the nation a more just and fair place for all its citizens.
However, they were also racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, imperialistic, and a whole bunch of other things common to their era and repugnant in ours.
Would that repugnancy justify renaming Bibb Graves Hall?
Or would it deny folks like me the opportunity to call attention to the fact that Bibb Graves’ career was about more than race.
Like it or not, what happened in the past seldom if ever revolved around a single issue. Therefore, using a single issue to judge a person’s career and contributions, enables, indeed encourages, us to ignore those things that do not fit neatly into our own narrow notion of what is or is not acceptable today.
At the same time, to ignore the racial dimensions of Graves career encourages the same narrow-mindedness.
So, keep the names on those buildings, and on those other public places and institutions.  Don’t take down the statues or the street signs.  But leave them there to stand as monuments to our willingness to confront a past that is not always heroic and leaders who as flawed as we all are.
With one reservation.
If leaving things as they are has just the opposite effect, if it causes us to gloss over past failings and ignore shortcomings, if there is no lesson to be learned from them being there, then get on with the renaming.
And in a decade or so, they will be renamed again.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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