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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Focus on works

by Brenda Looper | June 9, 2021 at 3:25 a.m.
Brenda Looper

I'm admittedly torn about statues in public spaces.

When it comes to those of ordinary people and/or historic events, such as my friend John Deering's "Testament," depicting the Little Rock Nine, I'm all in.

But with all the kerfuffle about J. William Fulbright's name and statue at the University of Arkansas, I find myself pondering why we're in the situation we're in, which is different than that involving Civil War monuments.

According to Becky Little of History.com, most of the Civil War monuments "did not go up immediately after the war's end in 1865. During that time, commemorative markers of the Civil War tended to be memorials that mourned soldiers who had died, says Mark Elliott, a history professor at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 'Eventually they started to build [Confederate] monuments,' he says. 'The vast majority of them were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation.'"

"In contrast to the earlier memorials that mourned dead soldiers," Little wrote, "these monuments tended to glorify leaders of the Confederacy like Gen. Robert E. Lee, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and Gen. 'Thomas Stonewall' Jackson.

"'All of those monuments were there to teach values to people,' Elliott says. 'That's why they put them in the city squares. That's why they put them in front of state buildings.' Many earlier memorials had instead been placed in cemeteries. The values these monuments stood for, he says, included a 'glorification of the cause of the Civil War.'"

For those people who think that removing statues is erasing history, well ... I don't really think so. In the case of those statues of Lee, Jackson and others, I'm more than a little put off by the idea of tributes to the Confederacy being on public property, which implies approval of treasonous acts. On private property, or in a cemetery, it's fine, as it would be in a museum, especially if accompanied by an explanation to put it into the proper context.

Is this rewriting history? Not really. As British historian Charlotte Lydia Riley wrote in The Guardian last June: "Historians are not too worried at the threat posed by 'rewriting history.' This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavor. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew. Despite what Leopold von Ranke--one of the pioneers of modern historical research--said, history is not only about finding out 'how it actually happened,' but also about how we think about the past and our relationship to it. The past may be dead, but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present."

Even the best of our leaders have things in their pasts that in light of today's mores would seem racist, sexist, or otherwise abominable. Teddy Roosevelt, one of my favorite presidents and thinkers, dishonorably discharged an entire regiment of innocent Black soldiers after an alleged riot in Texas. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders, was a brilliant writer and thinker, but was a slaveowner and was often too quick to retaliate against those who displeased him.

Fulbright has much to commend him, despite his being a signatory to the Southern Manifesto and his lack of support for the civil rights movement (which, some have argued, probably had much more to do with his constituency than his personal beliefs). Whether it's the Fulbright Program, his defiance of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (who he saw as a dangerous demagogue and danger to American democracy and world peace), or his early opposition to the Vietnam war, Fulbright proved his mettle. Plus, he was one of the University of Arkansas' presidents, so who am I (an ASU alum with no dog in the hunt) to say the school shouldn't honor him at all?

I'm not opposed to keeping his statue and name. Move the statue elsewhere and attach a contextual explanation to it if you must, but hold back on punishing the man for a few actions in a life that was otherwise dedicated to the betterment of mankind.

We shouldn't overlook the mistakes of history, but learn from them, and not necessarily from statues. As Riley noted, "Statues do not do a particularly effective job of documenting the past or educating people about it."

Riley wrote: "As our ideas about the world change, it is natural that so too does our attitude to the heroes and victories that our ancestors chose to commemorate. When those heroes were anything but heroic, leaving their statues standing is an insult to the modern values we claim to hold. This isn't a sinister erasure of history: This is re-evaluating our history based on new evidence and ideas."

After due consideration of the people commemorated, it's clear to me that some statues do deserve to come down, and for possible renaming of facilities named after them. Fulbright's good works, though, certainly outweigh the bad as far as I'm concerned.

It comes down to this: Don't forget the bad, but don't forget the good either.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at [email protected]

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