|WHEN SYMBOLS CLASH
Should America re-evaluate its civic symbols?
December 10, 1997
in this forum:
Should we avoid using people as civic symbols? Should we treat school names differently? How do other countries deal with controversial symbols? Should we consider some figures in American history sacred? Should a community be allowed to choose its own symbols? Additional comments and questions.
Russ Agreen of Denton, MD writes:
I was a bit disappointed in the historians' and journalist's views regarding the school name changes.
Although I am a Euro-American, objectivity causes me to think that many of our symbols are in need of review. The history of the United States is partly that of oppression, and it continues to this day. Not only have we failed to overcome racism, but none of the four panelists nor your own reporter even thought to ask what it means to surviving Native Americans to live in a nation that thinks of itself as a bastion of human rights.
Perhaps our blind love of the founding father's needs to be tempered in order to begin a process of greater objectivity with regard to the human wrongs committed here. I do not suggest dropping them from history, but I do think they should not be honored thoughtlessly as they always have been. This would be divisive, but one of the reasons it might be is that we have always been afraid to tackle the dark side of American history. At some point, this nation needs to begin to right the grievous wrongs done to Native Americans, but what chance is there if our historian's insist that it is okay to name schools after racists (and Indian killers)? Our history has much that is not okay, and our future will too unless brave folks take a stand that means something. Of course, one could argue that it is a chicken and egg problem. Do we rid ourselves of the symbols and mistake that as a cure?...
Steven C. Anderson of Boise, ID writes:
The renaming of a school named for George Washington raises a wider question: How stupid can you get?
I am a political liberal and always have been a strong advocate of racial equality. But this is absurd. George Washington was a person of his time. It was not a time like ours. Was slavery right, moral, correct or nice? Of course not.
So what? Every aspect of human history has its era.Washington lived more than two centuries ago, in an era that condoned slaveholding. But that makes him no less a hero of his era. To judge him by the standards of our era is to demonstrate that one has no concept of history.
Someday capitalism, with its many economic inequities, may be replaced by another system, as yet unknown, that is more equitable. I hope our descendants do not take so myopic a view as to discard and condemn all the heroes or our era simply because they were 'capitalists.'
Marion E. Guyton of Columbia, MD writes:
During the discussion on the appropriateness of renaming schools named for slaveholders such as George Washington, Doris Kearns Goodwin argued that Washington's quest for freedom eventually lead to the freeing of blacks after the Civil War. She should be reminded that the Revolutionary War was no boon to blacks, for if the rebels lead by Washington had lost the war freedom would have come to blacks much earlier under British rule, since slavery ended in the British Empire in the 1840's.
Goodwin could simply look just over our northern border to the free blacks in Canada to see that freedom for whites in the 13 colonies produced no dividends for blacks and constituted nothing for blacks to celebrate.
Further, another one of her inane comments infuriated me when she stated her approval of the honoring of Confederates who fought and died in their ignoble cause (my words, not hers). Many Nazi soldiers fought as well as those Confederates, but I don't think Jewish people would acquiesce to the honoring of those who died in that "Lost Cause." Why the should anyone black meekly accept the honoring of similar Confederate scum!
Rob of Terre Haute, IN writes:
Surely there is some benefit in honoring American heroes and icons of virtue save Confederates and other less than admirable historical figures, but where do we draw the line? And what is the opportunity cost of pursuing this versus other noble projects?
I say the line need be drawn at George Washington. Our forefathers were not without sin, but then who is? And their contributions far outweigh any consideration which we might entertain at the far left end of the spectrum.
Those "educators" and politicians in New Orleans and elsewhere should be giving as much zeal and ambition to increasing the quality of education. Across the country and across socio-economic and ethnic lines, families, when in a position of choice, overwhelmingly prefer private, religious, & charter schools. Further, the students perform statistically significantly better, 20 percent better in recent studies.
Let us please put first things first. The whole point of public schools is to educate, so why not focus on doing that one thing exceptionally well instead of using them as pawns for potentially polarizing social agendas.
Dennis A. Dussault of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands writes:
I think this reassessment of civic symbols is appropriate and long overdue. My prime candidate for reassessment is Christopher Columbus. He did not discover America, he only brought it to the attention of Europeans who proceeded pillage a new continent. Columbus was one of the first to wipe out native peoples while spreading Christianity and "advanced" European culture.
Especially in areas where the population is predominantly black (or any other minority for that matter), our civic symbols should be selected to inspire without equivocation. There are still many places we can honor the achievements of Washingtons and Jeffersons without having to qualify their shortcomings.
Alexander Nguyen of Cambridge, MA writes:
Civic symbols have great power. A look at today's commercial stage will confirm that symbols have the power to efficiently convey images, ideas, and concepts efficiently. Nike's swoosh or McDonald's Golden Arches are just examples thereof.
Civic symbols are important to the extent that they convey American ideals such as democracy and liberty efficiently. But I would argue that America is a nation that is tied together by concepts of liberty and equality that most citizens believe in. However, over time, many symbols have acquired negative connotations due to their complexity. George Washington as an icon, for example, can stand for American independence that most can agree with, but at the same time his slave ownership precludes unrestricted or uncontroversial use of his name to promote this ideal of liberty. It is very difficult to use real names or personalities to symbolize just one concept. Simpler symbols (such as the peace symbol for example) could be one solution to unanimous civic symbols.
But the more important point is not to overrate the importance of symbols. Because many concepts of liberty, freedom and equality rest on long and complicated processes of reasoning, it is important to realize that symbols merely are a matter of convenience, a short-hand for rather complex ideas. It is those ideas that are important for people to understand, including the line of thought that led to those ideas, not so much the ideas themselves. The danger with civic symbols is that their indiscriminate use can lead to the acceptance of the ideas which they represent without deeper individual thought on how the ideas were arrived at in the first place.
George Nolte of Florence, KY writes:
Perhaps Dr. Drew should stop and realize that without men such as George Washington and others, he won't have the freedoms he has. He should be reminded this decision sets a very bad precedence, which in the future, may justify the next generation in removing his name from public view for his contribution to community and country.
Jay A. Cohen of Santa Clara, CA writes:
Why do Americans feel that their heroes must be perfect? I find it odd that we harshly judge those who came before us--those who guaranteed the right for us to openly criticize them. Nor is it honest to judge long-dead icons in the light of today's mores; after all, we hope that humankind is steadily improving...
Kris Walter of Weaverville, NC writes:
Part of the unrest in America today is that there is not a sense of a living, noble and unified national identity to bind us together as a nation. Our country was founded on ideals by people who were admittedly as yet unable to live fully in the image and likeness of those ideals, but that does not mean they should not be recognized and honored for their vision and their attempts to bring into being something completely new in the realm of spiritual, political and social evolution.
If there were more vibrant, real and meaningful discussion in the media, in government, and in our lives in general on the topics of spiritual, political and social evolution, then we could more readily see our individual and collective places in the flow of history and its noble creations, and we could know our nation and its spirit as a gift to humankind for a more inspired realm. In that context, those who have struggled to bring us into greater consciousness of the gifts and responsibilities we share as a people could be seen in their wholeness, in their idealism and limitations, and we could honor what has gone before us, knowing that it is incumbent upon us to improve upon their efforts and ourselves.
James Wallerstedt of San Diego, CA writes:
No, it is not possible to have "undisputable symbols that an entire nation can cherish." There will always be a certain level of controversy about any national symbol, especially [in a country as] incredibly diverse as the United States.
Secondly, yes, a community should be allowed to pick its own symbols. If New Orleans wants to rename a local school, that is an issue for them to debate and decide for themselves.
Finally, yes, individuals must be judged by the standards of their day. In one or two centuries, many of the things we today accept as norms, will be considered ignorant or backward. The issue of George Washington's ownership of slaves, must be seen in this historic context.
Unknown to most, slavery was an institution that permeated every (and, I stress, every) human society in antiquity. The origin of the English word slave is "Slav," as the Slavic people were heavily used as slaves on the European continent. Slavery and caste systems were part of the Mayan, Incan, and Native American social systems. Slavery was rife in Africa among African chiefs and elites, not only in the day of George Washington, but through the beginning of the 20th century.
If we are ready to knock George Washington off his pedestal because he accepted a social institution of his era that has subsequently been discredited, we must be prepared to do the same for all cultural icons, in all cultures. By the standards of his time and place, George Washington was both a noble and kind man, who is still deserving of respect.
Paula Tefft of Statesboro, GA writes:
Such symbols can be important, true. But how much attention do kids really pay to the person their school was named after? I know I never paid much attention to the history of the schools I attended. I had too many other things on my mind, such as passing math!
Symbols should be judged by their own time to a point, but beyond that, they should be judged by their accomplishments. A man is more than a slave owner, or a doctor, or a lawyer... he is the sum of all that he has done.
I personally can't see this country ever having symbols we can all agree on. It's sad, but true. I'm afraid that communities will choose their own symbols whether or not they're "allowed" to do so. And in time, this has the potential to fragment the country, as each political and racial/cultural group chooses the people and symbols it wants to respect and emulate.
Though there are some people everyone should respect. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands proud as evidence of this. Sadly, we haven't got many men like him left.
Henry T.Nielson of Houston TX writes:
… Spain did not make slavery illegal until the mid 20th Century; should we disregard their contributions to society? Using a particular personality flaw to darken significant contributions to civilization could seriously damage civilization's progress. Personality flaws should be recognized in all our heroes, but not used to negate their accomplishments. If philandering becomes an issue, we may have to disregard people like our own President and MLK. When and where would it stop?
Jen Jasper of Pasadena, CA writes:
I think we ought to look at the long term effect of monuments in society and their value as historical artifacts. America is only a couple hundred years old and already it has cities, streets, bodies of water, libraries, statues, and yes - schools - which bear the name of Presidents, some who were slave owners.
Taking the name of slave-owning presidents off school mastheads leaves the remainder of the locations there to honor their memory - and the remainder is more than enough. I think it would benefit today's generation if we did have a more eclectic, recent group of achievers to honor in memory - and there's certainly plenty of room for all of them.
But consider the future: In another 200 years, when 270 million more people live in America, I hope there are more monuments to achievements in space and eradication of poverty than there are to any one statesman. I also hope that we'll build fewer $30,000+ statues to honor people and instead start more scholarship memorials and job-training fund memorials. As for finding a universal symbol of unity that would be accepted by all? How about peace, or a handshake?
Stanley White of Rex, GA writes:
I truly have to wonder if we would be hearing the same questions if, for example, a school on a Sioux reservation didn't want the name of General Custer on the building? History is a matter of perception, as is the question of who is a great individual. Washington thought blacks were inferior and didn't want black troops mixing with the whites. So why should a school with a predominantly black population wish to bear the name of a man who thought them less than equal?
Earl Johnson of Beaumont, TX writes:
Changing the names of schools to eliminate the great men in the history of our nation who were imperfect is ridiculous. This will eventually just leave numbers for schools ie. PS1 etc. Will we apply the same idea to cities and states? Should we change the name of MLK drive here in Beaumont because the otherwise great man is reputed to have been an adulterer? When will these fools quit trying to change history? Better perhaps to tear down the schools that once bore the names of such ne' re do wells as Washington and Jefferson.
Holly Harper of Cupertino, CA writes:
What would those people in New Orleans do about a school named after George Washington Carver?!!
Paul C. Palmer of Kingsville, Texas writes:
During a round-table discussion on the News Hour on November 25, Haynes Johnson said in passing that most southerners owned slaves. In fact that was never true. I did some research on the matter. My calculations from the 1850 census indicate that only about 21.3 percent of white families in the slave states owned slaves at that time. There is no reason to believe that the percentage of slaveholders was radically different from that at any time in the 19th century. It is a serious misunderstanding when you consider that American whites generally are being held liable for the great crime of slavery when in fact only a relatively small minority of whites in a minority region of the country owned and profited from the labor of slaves.
My great-grandfather, a white from Illinois, fought against slavery as a member of what many consider the most heroic company in the Union Army (Illinois 115, Co. D) and spent the last year of the Civil War in what many consider the closest American approximation of a Nazi death camp -- Andersonville Prison. More than a few southern whites made similar sacrifices in the struggle against secession and ultimately against slavery. Over a thousand unionists were murdered in south Texas alone for their anti-slavery, anti-secession views...
Tze Kwang Teo of Singapore writes:
In this world where moral degradation has become such an important and inescapable issue to government and religious leaders alike, civic symbols are sometimes an institution in themselves; they might be our best hope of representing a set of common, universal values that will cross boundaries and tear down the walls that divide. Now this debate over exactly how racially and politically appropriate certain symbols are, is signaling once again that all too frequently race and the darker pages of history get in the way of a nation's progress towards greater understanding and integration between its people.
Has the concept of common, universal values disappeared underneath age old fears and prejudices, or are such catch phrases forever a dream? What now for One America? Can we escape the shadows of history and truly seek common ground amidst such realities?
Emily Katina May of Eugene, OR writes:
If civic symbols are causing such commotion, why not name public buildings after geographical location? This makes public buildings easier to find, and provides for a name everyone can be content with.
Dennis J. Woodbury of Phoenix, AZ writes:
I think that Heraclitus of Ephesus said it best.
"What is impossible today may suddenly become possible tomorrow. What is good and pleasant today, may, tomorrow, become evil and odious."
Is it because you, as such an immature nation, great though you may be, have no sense of historical perspective? Viewing the past through today's eyes is not only suspect but foolish. It must be viewed in the context of international history where the scale of time and development has more significance than the sliver of history that America has.
Robert E. Nofer of Pasadena, CA writes:
I believe that a person's overall major accomplishments should be the criteria for using his or her name or picture as a symbol. Each case should be evaluated on its own merits. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were primary movers and decision makers in our country's history. To equate them mainly with slavery is to degrade the spirit of this important dialog.
However, the State of Georgia decided to add the Confederate flag to their state flag in the 50's as a protest to the civil rights movement. It was a purposeful attack on the spirit of equality and respect for all citizens and should be removed. The confederate flag also represents opposition to the idea of union - a country of united states. To excuse it as honoring a bygone culture of refinement, is disingenuous at best.
Timothy O'Hara of Hammonton, NJ writes:
The debate over renaming schools in Orleans Parish is understandable in the context of our myopic view of time. We have exacerbated the focus on race to the point that we no longer hold respectable men, who took considerable risks, respectable. These men, for all of their faults, did bring forth a country where the rights of the individual are paramount over the rights of the group and state.
The renaming of these schools to honor black men and women we now perceive to have contributed much to improving our lot in life as Americans, will eventually give way to what is more important in the context of another time.
We tend, in these politically correct times, to forget that many people took substantial risk to make the United States the greatest country in the world. Failing to honor this history will prove wrong over time. For if we do this now, in time, the actions of the Ernest Morials, Charles Richard Drews and others will be deemed unimportant and irrelevant to another time.
"Dennis Rodman Elementary" anynone?
Frank T. Manheim of Falmouth, MA writes
I welcome action on the part of blacks to reverence their heroes. First-class citizenship must be asserted -- it cannot be conferred. On the other hand, the reference to Washington and Jefferson as "racist slaveholders" seems to me only possible as a consequence of the mindless muckraking of the founding fathers in the 1960's, when efforts were made to tear down and degrade every tradition or reverence for U.S. institutions and history. Regard for historic balance and objectivity have still not been restored in an age when the artful and sensational lies of an Oliver Stone rob youth of their rightful heroes - with little protest or countering actions by our academic and culturally advantaged community.
I had to learn from a French historian-- long after school-- about the historically unparalleled integrity of Washington. As commanding general, he took orders from a weak civil government all through the Revolutionary War - even in the face of a plot against him. He continued to refrain from exploiting his personal position as leader of a successful revolution to unduly influence the creation of the Constitution. Then, he entrenched democratic principle and precedents by refusing to serve a third term as president. Like five of the six first presidents, Washington abhorred the institution of slavery.
Young blacks may identify more comfortably with the history of their country (as did Frederick Douglass, for example), if they realize slavery was imposed on the U.S. For example, the pre-Revolutionary Virginia Assembly voted several times to act against slavery within the Colony, but was each time prevented from acting by the British governor.
Jon Schwartz of Salem, OR writes:
I believe that we should cleanse our nation of its greatest historical cancer, and admit that our founders engaged in horrific, reprehensible acts. The "mores of the times" is not an excuse for their behavior. They read the Bible and they knew the lesson of the Egyptians and their enslavement of the Jews. There is simply no excuse. If I were black, I would feel a bitter chill every time I saw Thomas Jefferson on a nickel, regardless of his greatness as a man of vision and words. He held humans captive as his own property, and as such, he participated in, and indeed perpetuated one of world history's greatest evils. We can read his works and appreciate his legacy, but to champion his image as the best our nation has to offer excuses him of this evil, and is insensitive and unfair to the memory of the slaves that suffered under his wicked rule.
Patricia Schwarz of Pasadena, CA writes:
I believe that we add value to our civic institutions when design them to impart a sense of membership to the people who are actually being served by them in the real world. We all want to feel a sense of pride and identification in civic symbols. That can be tricky in a nation with such a divided past. But we have to do it, because pride in our identity will keep us from being so divided again.
James Hitz of Kouts, IN writes:
The issue of whether or not to change the name of a public building is one not to be taken lightly. When a former public individual's name is removed from a building a part of the history of that community and this country is diminished. The decision to do so however is solely the prerogative of each local community.
As regards national symbols such as the U.S. flag, national anthem, etc. there must be no official policy barring or discouraging their use at the local, state, or federal level. If certain individuals feel repressed, angered, or otherwise upset when these symbols are publicly displayed, I suggest that possibly a home in another country might relieve their angst.
We may have a multitude of problems in this country but the United States of America is still the land of opportunity for all who are willing to work in order to succeed. Changing building names or protesting the display of the Stars and Stripes will not enable anyone to succeed nor will it provide for a better life here.
Jeffrey A. Hintz of Phoenix, AZ
Good for the community!
I don't understand what concern anyone outside of a given community should have with another community's business. If anything, the community changing school names should be commended for having nothing more important to get accomplished.
Marty Platzner of Lawrenceville, NJ writes:
The community should be allowed to chose. The symbols do not lead to a fractious society; they are simply symbols (or symptoms) of an already fractious society. It hurts, but it is honest. We have not yet arrived at a unified nation. The journey will be a long and painful one, but with the first step of honesty, it has indeed begun. Let us wish the students and staff of the Dr. Charles Richard Drew School well.
Martha Franklin of Shizuoka, JAPAN
Should we judge people and events of the past on the standards of today? If we answer "yes" then what historical figure isn't guilty of something?
I didn't learn this until my poor mother began apologizing for the cookies she fed me in my childhood. "I didn't mean to give you high cholesterol or a tendency to overweight," she sobbed. She didn't know about cholesterol then, she didn't intend to hurt me, and I do not blame her at all.
Of course, slavery is a different issue than cholesterol. But the principle is the same in my opinion. The technology that made it possible for my mother to know in her lifetime, the results of her past actions isn't quite fair to her. Washington and other slave owners escaped criticism in their lifetime because thinking on ethics has been slower. This doesn't mean their positive contribution to society is any less now that we know they also were not perfectly accurate or politically correct in their ethical thinking. Let's keep the names of the schools as they are and teach the children that no one is perfect. Children will benefit from that in the long run. Who knows what we are doing today that will be thought unethical or harmful 100 years from now.
Kevin Bowman of Pasadena CA writes:
I think it is perfectly valid for the New Orleans district to rename their schools to individuals with whom their students may identify. However, they also insisted on demonizing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as well. The analogy presented between Washington and Hitler was simply ludicrous. It is certainly true that these individuals did not stand up against slavery with all their strength, though both admitted strong reservations toward this institution. Nevertheless, by espousing the principles of liberty and equality, they set the stage for the resolution of the obvious contradiction between those principles and slavery. It should be pointed out that many nations were implicated in this practice, including African tribes who sold their rival tribes into slavery. And yet, I doubt we will see a full-scale attack on those societies within those schools.
Leaders of the past should be judged in their context, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses. Every leader is human, and thus none perfect. Those who wield the PC scalpel may begin to find their own cherished leaders cut if they apply selective criteria criteria without considering the whole picture.
Myles Whittington of Piscataway, NJ writes:
Slavery was common in all colonial countries. Let's not cast out the fathers of our nation because of the prevailing manner of doing business in their time.
If it weren't for George Washington, Ben Franklin, and others like them we would all still be slaves to the British Crown.
Michael H of Miami FL writes:
This politically reductive trend taking place in New Orleans reminds me of the former Soviet communists attempts at rewriting their history. St. Petersberg became Petrograd then Leningrad, and Stalingrad, if you don't like the past, you can always change it. Revise the history books for they shame us.
Changing the name of a school in the Parish is akin to rewriting history. To make the past palpable to the most sensitive of today is to remove it's sharpness, it's edge. We cannot learn from a past that is too dull to cut.
We should leave the past intact and spend our efforts on changing the future.
Ruth Woodcock of Edgewater, FL writes:
There is a lot of possibility of examination of both the symbols and the historical people rather than just the 'icons' they have become. However, I sense that this will turn into another "my country, love it or leave it" stand off where it divides rather than enlightens. How do we go about keeping the people talking and not retreating into cliches?
In South Africa, where I am currently working, the bad decisions and/or over reactions of the leaders is becoming apparent through the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and the courts, and one can see a dichotomy between what the people want to believe about their leaders to make them 'icons' and the reality of the leaders being human beings with all the limitations. We may have an opportunity here to look at our symbols less passionately and more objectively and learn and possibly forgive them and ourselves for our weaknesses.
Jacqueline M. Martinez, of West Lafayette, IN writes:
Yes, we need civic symbols. No, it isn't about re-reading symbols according to today's political climate. But it is about deciding what we stand for as a culture and a humanity. The fact that slavery was a central economic, legal and social institution for a major part of this country's history should never be forgotten or apologized away by looking at slave owners' "other contributions" to our country. Renaming schools, particularly schools that serve communities who have borne the brunt of socially sanctioned forms of inhumane treatment (the traces of which are alive today in the form of continued economic stratifications, stereotypes and prejudice) is a brave step toward creating a truly democratic, free and fundamentally respectful culture where we refuse to tolerate, condone, or apologize away the ways in which we have proven ourselves to be so capable of being inhumane to our fellow human beings.
Mike McGlothlin of Long Beach, CA writes:
I look forward to seeing the Newshour explore this issue. According to the syllabus on the Web page, it mentions that several schools were renamed that are appropriate, for example, Jefferson Davis Elementary. However, George Washington is not the same thing as Jefferson Davis, or even Robert E. Lee. The legacy of Washington for all Americans does not need to be recapped here, for he was, without question, the indispensable man, without whom the United States would not exist in the form it does today. I completely agree that symbols that do not represent all of us should not be forced down our throats-- such as in Georgia, the Confederate battle flag on the state flag-- a flag adopted, not in 1865, but in the late 1950's in response to the end of segregation. But castigating Washington (who manumitted his slaves when he died) for living in a society he did not create, is going over the edge. Washington can be used to stimulate a discussion (intellectual, not emotional) over the failure of his society (as regards slavery) as well as the real contributions that he made, that all Americans continue to enjoy today. In short, slavery in America would have continued whether Washington participated in it or not, but America would not necessarily be what it is today without Washington.
B.G. of Fredericksburg, VA writes:
While I can understand that blacks need heroes as well as whites, and that a school 90 percent black should have a symbol (or name) that would serve as an inspiration for its students, someone they can identify with and seek to emulate, I have difficulty in accepting any action which in anyway diminishes the reputation of George Washington. Without his commitment, sacrifices, example, stature, integrity, honor, dedication, leadership ability, ability to inspire loyalty...without him there would be no America. Let the school change the name, but only for the reasons I first stated, but let them still honor George Washington, recognizing the debt we all owe him, and perhaps finding some other way to honor him in the school. As for his slaves, I won't repeat what we all know was his behavior towards them and his freeing of them in his will and his arranging for Martha to free her slaves upon her death, too.
Jonathan Raff of Milwaukee, WI writes:
It is understandable why the Orleans Parish School Board changed schools named after Confederate generals and leaders, such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, etc. But the name change of George Washington Elementary School seems to step over a line of looking at our historical figures in context. The students at the newly christened Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary School should not look at nor be encouraged to look at our first President (nor Thomas Jefferson for that matter) as simply a slaveholder. There is obviously a line between renaming schools named after Confederate leaders and renaming schools named after our great nation's founding fathers. In your opinion, how and where should the Orleans Parish School Board, as well as the entire United States, draw that line?