Don’t Just Hide The Statues, Learn From Them

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The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College

“By the end of 1862…both sides openly and fervently acknowledged that the Civil War was about the maintenance of slavery and official white supremacy…We should all challenge the flying of the Dixie ‘stars and bars’ flag of sedition, ignorance and hatred at any government locations in this country,” said this column in February 2002.

That doesn’t mean tearing them down and destroying them in mob fashion, as happened in Durham, NC, last week. Regardless of the popularity of one’s cause or the sincerity of one’s personal hurt, destroying art because of the creator’s politics is something Nazis would do. Some of these statues are great tools for teaching in a museum or other appropriate setting.

Lesson one: How can a majority be taught to buy into an economic system, like slavery or the apartheid system that followed it, that primarily serves the people at the top? Blacks weren’t the only ones held down by Jim Crow: Your family may be barefoot and ignorant, but at least you know you’re better than them.

Many of the founders believed that a republic could be maintained only if the citizens were educated, aware and involved. An educated citizenry can weigh facts, evaluate sources and, most importantly, identify who is really on their side and who really isn’t. We no longer teach civics in our public schools, and the television news is no longer an official public service but just another entertainment show.

In Phoenix, our president tells a cheering crowd that “They are trying to take away our history and heritage” and a bunch of other bunk. History nerd bonus points: Arizona was the only territory that was attached to the Confederacy.

We like to think that over the last century and a half, we’ve made steady progress toward equality and good feeling between people. Actually, racism and bigotry has ebbed and flowed, come into fashion and fallen out. That means whatever has happened can happen again, if we aren’t aware and aren’t careful.

Governor Cuomo last week ordered the busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson removed from the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, now owned by Bronx Community College. He did it “because New York stands against racism,” as if it was all that simple. Once a tourist attraction, the Hall of Fame was created at the turn of the 20th-century, a low-point in civil rights, and many of those honored held opinions and positions reflective of those times.

President Grover Cleveland is in there, and he had some interesting ideas regarding Chinese immigrants.

Here’s an actual 1944 local headline about a big Rockville Centre event: “Minstrel Show to Aid War Work.” How do you feel about that? Many Long Island churches, fraternal organizations, school groups and political party committees used to put on Minstrel Shows, cakewalking in blackface into the Kennedy Administration.

The answer isn’t to burn everything or to hide it all away, but to put things in context so that we can all learn from it, and be warned by it.

Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.

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