RE-ASSESSING CIVIC SYMBOLS
November 25, 1997
Margaret Warner talks with Cornel West and the NewsHour historians about changing the names of schools once dedicated to George Washington and other slave holders.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For 74 years the name of this New Orleans school was etched in stone on its facade. But last month the faculty and parents of Washington Elementary School decided to change the name to Charles Richard Drew Elementary. The decision stemmed from a 1992 Orleans Powers School Board policy, which calls for renaming schools named for former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 9, 1997:
Should America re-evaluate its civic symbols? Join the debate.
September 30, 1997:
Presidential race advisers discuss Clinton's One America initiative.
September 25, 1997:
A look back at school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas 40 years ago.
October 10, 1997:
Online Forum The President's race advisory panel on school desegregation.
July 4, 1997:
Online Forum The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook joins Angela Oh in responding to the first online forum on race relations.
May 20, 1997:
Betty Ann Bowser reports on the effects of dropping affirmative action programs in Texas universities.
April 9, 1997:
A federal court in California upholds a state ban on affirmative action programs.
Jan. 15, 1996:
Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to Benjamin DeMott about his book The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight about Race.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Race Relations.
George Washington, the nation's first president, was a slave owner. The new namesake of the elementary school is Dr. Charles Drew, a black physician who was a pioneer in the preservation of blood plasma. Drew, who died in 1950, protested the U.S. army's segregating blood donated by blacks from that donated by whites. The Orleans parish schools are 91 percent black, and many, including civil rights leader Carl Galmon, advocated the policy.
CARL GALMON, Civil Rights Activist: How can we expect African-American students to pay homage to someone and respect to someone that enslaved their ancestors. This is one of the most degrading and the cruelest thing ever happened in North America. This is an insult to our race as a people. And I feel that we would not expect a Jew to attend a school named after Adolf Hitler, so why should we expect African American kids to attend school after slave owners.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The school board vote to ratify the decision of the parents and faculty to change the name of Washington School was unanimous. But school board member Scott Shea doesn't want Washington's contribution to the country to be forgotten.
SCOTT SHEA, School Board Member: It needs to be mentioned that he did own slaves and put into context. But to say that he has no meaning to kids in our particular school system I think is disturbing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Drew Elementary is the 22nd school in New Orleans to change its name since 1992. The first was Jefferson Davis Elementary, named for the Confederate president. It's now called Ernest Morial School, for a former New Orleans mayor who was black
The Ronald McNair School, named for the black astronaut who was killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, used to be called the Robert E. Lee School for the Confederate general in the Civil War. Some blacks have been targeted by the policy. This school was originally named for Marie Couvent, a 19th century black owner of an orphanage who also owned slaves. It's now called the Alexander P. Tureaud School for a 20th century civil rights lawyer.
Across the nation there are about 450 schools named for George Washington, including George Washington University in Washington, D.C.. And there are hundreds of schools named for other American presidents and founding fathers who owned slaves, including Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason.
MARGARET WARNER: The New Orleans Schools controversy raises a broader question: when, if ever, should a society re-evaluate its civic symbols. Here to explore this issue are three NewsHour regulars: presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Cornel West, Harvard University professor and author of "Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America." Haynes, what do you make of what the Orleans parish board has done?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, I understand--you know, when we listened to that setup for this piece, you could certainly understand how people feel that slave-owning was a disgrace to humanity, but to equate George Washington to Adolf Hitler is absurd, it seems to me it's political correctness run wild. And we might as well knock down the Washington Monument here, tear apart the Jefferson Memorial, and so forth, or knock down the Lincoln Memorial because he was a manic depressive. I mean, the idea of history is to teach reality about who they were. It's one thing to have pride, and we should. It's wonderful. Charles Drew was a great American. He deserves his name on many buildings--but to also defame George Washington doesn't make sense to me.
MARGARET WARNER: Cornel West, do you think it's political correctness to run wild?
CORNEL WEST, Author, Restoring Hope: Well, one hopes not. One has to look at the reasons as to why people make these changes. There's a difference between demonizing George Washington and criticizing George Washington. We can keep track of his courageous freedom fighting. We can keep track of his charismatic leadership that led toward orderly transfer of power and keep track of the immoral slave holding. He's all of these at the same time. We can criticize without demonizing.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, how do you sit?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think Cornel is right. And the other thing is that it's a very powerful gesture if you do change the name of a monument or a school because you come to see the person after whom it is named in a different way. Take a look, for instance, the football team in Peking, Illinois, was, believe it or not, called the Peking Chinks--not even a very good joke before the age of political correctness.
While we became more sensitive to those things in the 1970's, that name was changed. Another example--the Nixon Library in California was accepting about $6 million from a businessman's estate named Elmer Bokes who was revealed to have written really viciously anti-Semitic letters to Nixon. They decided to return the money, not name the building after him. These are powerful gestures.
And when you dilute those gestures by taking names like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson off of schools and monuments, men who certainly had careers that were not perfect but actually helped to establish the qualities of liberty and equality that allowed us to abolish slavery and continue to seek equal opportunity in our own times. If you dilute gestures like this with things like that, I think it's a big mistake.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, how do you see it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Historian: Well, I think the failure came at a certain level of education. I think--I understand the impulse that led them to decide to rename schools in some instances. You want young black Americans to feel proud of who their school is named after.
I even can understand putting it to a vote perhaps. But to have made an absolute rule that anyone who owns slaves was not allowed to have the name on there and take George Washington off, who actually freed his slaves upon his death, inherited slavery, lived at a time when it was there, I think takes away from the notion that history is a combination of forces. In fact, had it not been for George Washington's heroism in both the revolution and the establishment of the republic, we wouldn't have had a republic of popular sovereignty. It was that republic that eventually elected Abraham Lincoln. It was Lincoln's election that led, in part, to the Civil War that ended slavery. And, you know, you look at a black leader like DuBois, who said, "I love Abraham Lincoln"--he was not a perfect man.
He protected slavery too long at times, but he eventually ended slavery, and he was a man inconsistent and brave, some good, some bad. He could say that about Lincoln, and you wish that the educators and the teachers and the parents down there had helped the kids to see the same thing about George Washington because once you start making things like this, you know, either/or, you lose the whole moral value in a certain sense of history being a mixed bag always.
MARGARET WARNER: Cornel West, how important are civic symbols like these, the names on buildings, flags that are flown, a state song, such as the one in Virginia? Why are they--how important are they and to whom?
CORNEL WEST: I think democracies must continually renew and recast and reinterpret these symbols and icons. And I would hope that these symbols and icon would allude in some significant way to aspects and dimensions of citizenship. I mean, that's one of the things that disturbs me about the flag in South Carolina, is that it's not simply a symbol of bigotry and slavery and Jim and Jane Crowe, but it also signifies those barriers that impeded access to citizenship. What holds America together--very, very fragile--is some notion of citizenship in which we all can enter public space without humiliation and actually age in deliberation about our destinies.
MARGARET WARNER: And you're talking, of course, about the Confederate flag and the furor in many Southern states about flying it at all. But are you saying then that you think the name on a building or on a school is very important to the students who go there?
CORNEL WEST: I think, yes, but again there's so many different dimensions of the person. I mean, George Washington contributed greatly to a notion of citizenship. At the same time he also was part and parcel of a system that impeded. But let me say this, though, that I think we can make a fetish of symbols. If there's quality education in that school, good teachers, enough resources, motivated students, strong families, and communities, then the name is important but subordinate to the quality of life that takes place within that institution.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see this, Haynes, the importance of these symbols?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, I think he's exactly right, and what Doris said earlier; it's the quality of the education. We should teach about the abomination of slavery. We should teach that 20 percent of the Americans in 1800 were black slaves--20 percent of this population--more than now--and that most of the Southerners at that time were slave owners--the great architects of freedom. That's a wonderful thing to draw the line of who we were. And all of the contradictions and all of that, that's part of our history and our viability, and I think we should teach that. The names and symbols are something else. It does mean something in a school. You identify with that person. If you name it Jeff Davis, I can understand that problem. Or if you're waving the Confederate flag, that's a taunt in the face, and I think that's not good either.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: All right. But, you know, most of the symbols, of course, are much more in the middle and shades of gray, and things that are not so provocative. And you have to also, I think, educate young people to assume that if a school or monument is named after someone, that's not necessarily saying that we as a society think that that person is 100 percent good. Oftentimes, it's a relic of an earlier time. There are an awful lot of monuments, for instance to William McKinley and Warren Harding, people we don't think of as particularly great presidents, but they died in office, and a lot of people were sorry that they did, and they built a lot of monuments to them.
You just have to look at Pennsylvania Avenue. The FBI building is named after J. Edgar Hoover, who is someone we now know broke civil liberties, did a lot of very bad things, and you have to see that in the context of the time in which that building was named.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Doris, that strikes me as really the question. Do we re-evaluate civic symbols based on contemporary standards, or are the standards of their era more important?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think it's a really important question because the symbols are important. It's not a minor thing. I mean, the governor of South Carolina and the governor of Virginia--heated battles occurred when they decided to take those Confederate flags down.
Some people thinking you are undoing all of Southern history--it was a stain on the Confederates who lived and died for a cause--others feeling it was a stain on current African Americans and even on the hope for the new South. And it became an incredibly heated battle, as did the song in Virginia, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginy," the official state song, which had in it some words that were offensive to young blacks. So symbols are something that either divide us or tear us apart, or they bring us together. So they're important to figure it out. I mean, the cases of those flags actually, what made it so complicated was that they were actually only put up, those Confederate flags, in the early 1960's and the late 50's as a symbol of resistance against Civil Rights.
They had not been flying ever since the Civil War. So I think some Southerners maybe not understood that when three out of four Southerners said they wanted to keep the Confederate flag flying; they probably thought they were keeping their own history and their own value in their Confederate ancestors, which deserve to have some value. They fought; they died; and there's some monuments that are deserving to be there. But we carry these things to logical extremes on both sides, and what's scary is that if you take it to the really logical extreme, then the country which America has always been founded on, having some common unity, some tradition, some shared memories, which all presidents have to call on when we're in a crisis, will be more fragmented.
It could be tribalized. You see it right now in the most extreme case in Bosnia, where they just show that in education right now a Serbian kid is learning that the Serbian guy who killed the arch duke in 1914, starting World War I, was a hero; the Croatians are learning he's an assassin and a terrorist. We're not even anywhere close to that, but you want to keep some of these shared conditions. And it all depends on reasonable people understanding which things are really offensive, which things are just part of the past. It's a never-ending battle.
HAYNES JOHNSON: What Doris said a minute ago about the fragmentation and the divisions, those founders understood that if America was going to work, we had to take out of all the cultures of the world race, religion, ethnicity, and find one group that was the E Pluribus Unum out of many--one was the motto of the United States--and I think that's not a bad motto.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Michael, what do you think it says about our society today, that all--really almost all of these battles go back to race?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it means that race is one of the great unanswered questions in American society as it is, and something that is causing divisions even this day, which we never would have imagined perhaps a century ago. And it shows how provocative some of these symbols are. Something that Doris said a moment ago about waving the Confederate flag, since that isn't something that was used throughout the last century, it does make a very big statement if someone waves a Confederate flag in the University of Mississippi stadium.
It's hurtful and it's provocative, and that's a kind of thing that should be banned. But when you extend that to banning George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they did not do things as fully as we would like in terms of opposing slavery, then I think it's something that really erodes our ability to change our history.
MARGARET WARNER: Cornel West, would you agree with what Michael just said about where he would draw the line?
CORNEL WEST: There's no doubt that we have got to be able to stay in contact with the complexity of the various individuals. But I give an example of what I have in mind: You take the common perception of Elijah Mohammed in white America. The first thing they see, I would argue, the first thing most white fellow citizens would see would be black supremacy. And, therefore, he's beyond the pale. When we look at white supremacism in the American past, black people keeping track of that particular dimension, the first thing is well, we've got to put it in context; we've got to put it in context.
We should be able to keep track of the complexity of an Elijah Mohammed--a love that flows that is hard on the one hand, and at the same time a certain kind of hatred toward what he perceived to be devilish behavior and wrongly inferring that white people are devils. We can understand it without excusing. Similarly so in white supremacists like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, who made grand contributions, have much compassion flowing, and at the same time were racist--why not acknowledge the imperfections in each and every one of us and attempt to accent the best in each of us?
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you four very much. We have to acknowledge we're out of time.