Changing the present does not change the past

There have been a few stories that I’ve come across that makes me think we’re going too far at trying to “correct” our past mistakes.  These attempts may be well-intended, but I think they have the strong possibility of allowing revisionist history to change the true history of our country.  A person or country that does not know its past can not chart a proper course for the future.  Humans learn by trial and error amongst other methods.  By not examining and learning from our past mistakes, we leave the possibility of future generations repeating the same things.

We attempt to dull the pain from past mistakes by removing any and all traces of the things that causes the pain.  I think that is the wrong course of action.  Instead, we should be strong enough to confront those past mistakes head on, have rational dialogue on the causes and effects of those mistakes, and then apply what we learn to our present situation to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Two recent events that have me thinking about this is the renaming of a school in Jacksonville, Florida and the removal of a statue from the State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia.

Duval County School Board members voted 7-0 Monday to change the name of Nathan B. Forrest High School, casting aside the name that many associate with slavery, Civil War crimes and racism.

[…]

School Board members said they believe they gave people on both sides of the issue plenty of time and opportunity to voice their views. During the meeting before the vote, community members spoke to the board for nearly 90 minutes.

This followed several public meetings, surveys and other discussions.

Most board members said their decision to change the school’s name was based on a desire to end division in the community and to encourage today’s students, 61 percent of whom are African American.

Now, the Board’s intent sounds like they are acting in the interest of the community as a whole, but I think there’s the chance that wiping General Forrest’s name from the school will also lessen the interest and learning involved with the Civil War era.  Instead of focusing on the fact that Gen. Forrest founded the KKK, those who attend the school named after him should dig deeper to see if that’s the ONLY thing he did.  Whether right or wrong in his actions, Gen. Forrest is a part of American history, and we should not be so willing to wipe that history away no matter how awful it is.  That includes removing his name from schools, streets, or anything else.  I can understand the emotion behind such actions, but sometimes, we have to temper our emotions and take a long view of situations.

ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal quietly signed an order this month to remove the controversial statue of Tom Watson from the prominent west side entrance of the state capitol building.  But not because of the controversy.

Watson was a late-19th century and early-20th century state lawmaker and member of Congress who, critics say, represented the worst of Georgia politics in the post-Reconstruction era.

Gov. Deal ordered the relocation not because of the decades-long controversy over the statue’s prominent place, but because the state is planning “big renovations on the steps on that side” of the Capitol, said Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson.

[…]

“Tom Watson was a first-class hater and it wasn’t just Jewish people, he hated Catholics and Black people too,” said Anti-Defamation League southeastern director Bill Nigut, in a 2010 story on 11 Alive News. 

Watson was a prominent voice in the buildup to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted of murdering of Mary Phagan. “His anti-Semitism and racism was particularly vile,” said Sen. Vincent Fort Monday.  Fort says Watson whipped up racist sentiment that led to a riot in Atlanta in 1906.”

The statue of Tom Watson stirred up a bit of debate in and around Atlanta, Georgia as well.  Now, one of the state legislators is pushing for a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King on the site of the previous statue.  This is another situation where emotion is removing a cog from the wheel of discussion that this country could and should have.  Instead of banishing the statue of Tom Watson to a spot away from the Capitol, why not put the two of them side by side?  One person who pushed intolerance right beside the person who spearheaded the movement that broke the back of intolerance.  Think of the historical discussions that would generate.  Outside of the State of Georgia, how many school age kids have learned of Tom Watson and his actions?

I’m not discounting the emotions of anybody involved in these efforts, but I think we’re losing great chances to debate the past, present, and future course of our country.  Removing a statue or name from a school does not remove the actions of the person.  That does not also remove those people’s effect on our country.  Kids today have access to much more information than at any time in the past.  That said, we shouldn’t be removing any references to our past as that cuts off a potential learning lesson for the kids who never had to live through these events or have talked with people who lived through them.  Looking at other countries and their history, you can still see the gates to the prison camps in Germany, even with the painful history behind them.  We shouldn’t be so careless about our history as well or else we stand the chance of it being revised so much that America in 100 years won’t know what the previous America was actually like.

 

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4 thoughts on “Changing the present does not change the past

  1. Very thoughtful post, Brosephus. It’s given me a new way to look at our past. I like the idea of MLK & Watson side by side.

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  2. On the Tom Watson statue, as I’ve said before, I don’t care of statues of anybody; I see them as idolatry. That being said, history is what it is. I wonder how many people in Georgia, between say 18-45, even knew who Tom Watson was before this came up. My guess is very few. So, I’d just as soon not have any statues of anybody but since it was already there, leave it there, history is what it is, warts and all. (Watson started out as a Progressive by the way but changed when that didn’t get him the votes to get elected. To me, that’s the biggest indictment of him, that he changed his “beliefs” to get votes. Personal ambition was likely his driving force.)

    As far as putting an MLK statue beside it, I’d have no problem with that. It would give context.

    Bedford Forrest is probably one of the most “revised” people in history. They still study his cavalry tactics at West Point. A good many things that have been written about him, both negative and positive, don’t really stand up to scrutiny.

    And rare is the person who knows that some of Forrest’s soldiers who were captured in West Tennessee by Union Colonel Fielding Hurst’s men were executed without trial, even though they were captured in uniform; a violation of all military codes. You don’t hear about that because Forrest was on the losing side and guess who writes the history books.

    I’m not a big fan of naming things after people either, for the same reason that I don’t like statues. Still, once something has been named, leaving it along reminds people of the past and it also reminds people of what previous generations thought was worth remembering, rightly or wrongly.

    As a person who has a life long interest in geneaology, one of the first things you learn in exploring your family tree, no matter who you are, is that you will find good people and you will find scoundrels. They’re all your kin, either way. As my Great Grandpa was often quoting as saying (he died before I came along), “If the truth hurts, let it hurt”.

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    • I can see the perspective on idolatry, and I don’t have a valid counter for that. I can see the historicallessons that can be gleaned from them.

      Until I moved to Georgia, the only Tom Watson I knew of was the golfer. I came across his name when reading up on lynching cases a while back. I had been thinking about this topic since hearing about the school name change, but it really struck home when my 5yr old came home with a million questions about MLK Jr and Rosa Parks.

      I don’t mind the statues, memorials, and such if it’s done for historical purposes. Even if it’s a dark part of our history, I think it all needs to be told. Just as the story about Forrest’s men goes largely untold, there’s the differences in stories told between prison camps run by the Union and Confederate armies. Most people can name Confederate prison camps, but not too many can name the Union counterparts.

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