Columnists Earl Ofari Hutchinson Opinion

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Be careful what monuments you go after

I recently called for Long Beach school officials to re-examine having the name of former President Woodrow Wilson on one of its schools.

A day later a reporter doing a story on the controversy asked, “I wonder in response to those who say changing school names is going too far.”

It was a fair question. My answer as far as Wilson was concerned was easy. Wilson was not just a racist in word, but in deed. As president, he had the power to cause much racial pain.

It’s crucial to make that distinction between word and deed when battling to exorcise names of alleged racists from public places, and defacing or ripping down statues and monuments of them. It is true that casual and accepted racist sentiments were the norm of pre-1960s civil rights era America and were expressed and accepted by a wide body of the general public.

Wilson was a part of those times. He should not be indicted for that. But his racism didn’t stop with casual racist remarks and sentiments.

Wilson touted the Ku Klux Klan when it was at it murderous and terrorist worst, championed the exclusion of Japanese and Chinese from the U.S., screened and lauded the racist film, “Birth of a Nation” at the White House and booted Blacks out of federal government jobs. His action had massive damaging effect on law and public policy then and now.

The same can be said about Confederate generals and officials. They were traitors to their country and the Constitution, which many of them had at one time sworn to uphold. No country on the planet would dare give places of honor to those who worked to tear apart their government.

Their traitorous rebellion ensured four more years of brutal bondage for millions of African Americans and a century after that of vicious, ruthless and unrelenting terror, murder, pillage, Apartheid-like segregation, grinding poverty and gaping racial disparities in health, education and the criminal justice system for many Blacks. The South and the nation certainly can thank them for much of that even today.

Things get blurred and muddled when it comes to knocking down from perches of honor many others purported to have done heinous and despicable racial acts. The monuments, statues and names on public places of men such as Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison readily come to mind.

Grant and Lincoln are lambasted because of remarks considered racially demeaning. In addition, Grant as president is ripped for his purported sanction of the murderous pillage of Native American lands. The Founding Fathers, Washington, Jefferson and Madison, of course, were slaveholders. 

But there are three great dangers in lumping them in with Confederate generals. One, examining historic figures through the lens not of their times but present times is always risky business. They are taken out of the political, social and racial context of their era. 

Another is picking and choosing only one bad part of their legacy to paint them as arch racial villains.

Grant is a textbook example. His administration’s policy toward American Indians must be condemned. But Grant, as supreme Union Army commander, played a towering role in Black emancipation. As president, he used federal power to battle Klan terror in the South. He backed Reconstruction-era civil rights bills.  

Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder. But he opposed the slave trade, the expansion of slavery into new American territories and gave the world the monumental template for liberty and freedom in the Declaration of Independence. African Americans, though unintended, and others have benefited from this.

Then there’s the peril that if you totally remove the ugly racism from history, you squander a golden opportunity to turn this stain into a teaching moment for this generation and future generations.

That’s exactly what the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial, and the Holocaust Museum have done with slavery, racial violence and genocide. So, we can use Jefferson to discuss the horrors of slavery, the importance it played in shaping law, public policy and the economic might of America that still stamps America to this day.

There is one more danger. The across the board assault on monuments has predictably ignited backlash. The American Constitutional Rights Union, a conservative watchdog group based in Florida, has loudly demanded that public officials protect private buildings, monuments and statues from those they label leftists and anarchists.

Then there’s President Donald Trump. He still swoons over long-dead Confederate generals and threatened to derail a military spending bill that would purge their names from military bases.

Those who assail monuments by not making the distinction between the worthy and the unworthy and tossing them all in the same racially hideous past give lots of ammunition to Trump and company to paint them as mindless haters and anarchists out to destroy America’s heritage.

That said, heed the admonition and be careful what monuments you go after.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.