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Be Thoughtful In Cleansing America’s Past

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Few issues we’ve asked our readers about over our long career in journalism have brought out such deep and passionate responses as the tearing down of statues of historic figures from America’s past. It seems there is little room for compromise or understanding on either side.  Perhaps, there is greater impatience in each of us with the stress of how our worlds have been upset by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are a little more frayed at the edges.

The killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of police officers May 25 was a lightning strike in a tinder dry forest. Marches with large crowds of outraged citizens exploded across the nation and world. A few used the legitimate protests as cover for vandalism, theft and arson.

However, we can’t let the excesses of a few diminish our resolve to confront those parts of our past which we should not celebrate in public squares, maintain with public funds, and live on as reminders of our failings. Rather we should look for inspiration from those who have moved us closer to equality for all.
Renaming forts should be easy

“Ten Army posts named during World Wars I and II honor men who fought for the Confederate States of America against the United States of America. These men committed treason to create a country dedicated to human enslavement. The posts must be renamed,” Ty Seidule, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and professor emeritus of history at West Point, writes.

America’s 245-year-old military history is rich with soldiers whose names could replace those of Confederate soldiers, he says.

Fort Hood in Texas is named after John Bell Hood, a West Point graduate who resigned his commission to fight for the Confederacy. Rename it Fort Murphy, he suggests.

“Audie Murphy received every award for valor given by the U.S. Army, plus honors from France and Belgium. Murphy received the Medal of Honor for mounting a flaming tank destroyer and manning a .50-caliber machine gun, wounding or killing 50 German soldiers, by himself. Today, senior noncommissioned officers compete to join the Audie Murphy Club, a recognition of excellence,” Seidule writes. He goes on to list nine more American heroes whose names could replace those of Confederates.
Statues and Monuments –

A complex history

“Monuments to white supremacy don’t belong in places of allegiance, and it’s past time that these painful memorials be moved in a legal, safe way,” North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said.

Some vehemently disagree. “It’s American history and you have no right to destroy or remove it!” they shout. These words come from both Northerners and Southerners. Yet, these monuments serve as rallying symbols, places for those who still hold racism deep in their souls, to energize their gatherings and causes. Those seeking change say that taking down the statues is not a rewriting history but recognition of its dark side, and no longer venerating it.

The principles stated in the Declaration have been the cornerstone upon which America has been steadily, painfully moved forward, conservative columnist and author Henry Olson writes. These words have been “inconsistently applied throughout our nation’s history, but that principle has been the fuel of every movement that brought further emancipation.

“The early suffragists explicitly appealed to it at the first women’s rights meeting, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery under its banner, and Franklin D. Roosevelt created the New Deal by citing its promise. The greatest speech of the 1960s civil rights revolution, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, is a masterful disquisition on that immortal principle. It is America’s gift to the world,” Olson writes.

Though America’s first president George Washington owned slaves, he freed America from its colonial rule and set the stage for the freedoms that would inevitably follow.

Our third president Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence but also the owner of slaves. Yet in 1778 he introduced a law in his home state of Virginia outlawing the importing of slaves. Six years later in 1784, he proposed a ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory – new lands won from the British in 1783. Under his presidency, the United States passed legislation banning the slave trade, effective starting 1808.

“You know that nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery: and certainly, nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object,” Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1788.

Ulysses S. Grant married into a family that owned slaves, but that did not stop him from leading the Union forces that fought to end slavery – 360,000 Union soldiers died in that cause.

When he sought the nomination of the Republican Party in his run for the presidency in 1868, Grant supported its platform maintaining the rights of Blacks to vote in the South.

Though imperfect, and men whose actions are easy to judge in a world evolved  from 180 to more than 250 years ago, they laid the foundations upon which American freedoms exist today.

Men such as Grant, Jefferson and Washington, can be judged apart from those who fought for the Confederate states, who were traitors to their oaths of allegiance and fought to preserve slavery.

American President and Army general Andrew Jackson lives on in many of our memories as a gallant and colorful figure of America’s past that should be revered, but we were not given his full biography in high school.

In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act that led to the forced relocation of an estimated 60,000 Native Americans from the southeastern U.S. to what was set aside as Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Their journey from their ancestral lands to their new home is called the Trail of Tears. More than 4,000 men, women and children died during the march.

Should the man who ordered their removal be forever memorialized in a statue before the White House? A seemingly heroic figure on horseback whose actions are a painful afront to every Native American?

Statues we preserve should be of those who moved this nation forward to greater freedom one painful step at a time. And, new statues should be commissioned memorializing those who fought injustice to make the American dream one shared by all.

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