Squelching history, not learning from it
Leo Morris, Indiana Policy Review
Does it embarrass you to know that the Ku Klux Klan was once such a dominant force in Indiana? Want to ignore that whole sorry episode from our past and never mention it again?
Or, should we teach it in our schools as a way to remind the oppressors’ descendants of the sins they must live down and remind today’s victim groups that their grievances are still valid?
That might seem like a false choice between two deeply flawed approaches to history, but Brooklyn writer Libby Emmons makes an intriguing case that it also describes reality.
In a perceptive essay on “Hiding George Washington” in The Federalist, she describes efforts in San Francisco to remove murals depicting the nation’s first president’s life from the high school bearing his name because they “show America’s history from the colonizer’s perspective,” offensively depicting the racist history of which Washington was a part.
One side wants to destroy the murals because they glorify a man who, although he did so much good for our country, also participated in a society that allowed the evils of slavery. The other side wants to preserve the murals, for exactly the same reason, as an aid for “critically examining the country’s oppression of people of color.”
In other words, it’s a “classic Left versus Left scenario, with the upholders of the old, classical liberal tradition that values freedom of expression over anything else against the new guard that values the sensibilities of the offended over all.”
After first considering whitewashing the murals (really, with no sense of irony), school board members came up with the idea of hiding them behind solid panels, so the works “won’t be destroyed” but “won’t be visible, either.”
It’s a solution they might have learned from Indiana University, which took exactly that course in dealing with a controversial work of art by Thomas Hart Benton.
Not the entire 22-panel series, which depicts the social and industrial history of Indiana “from Native American mound builders to the industrialized age.” Just panel 10, in an aged classroom in Woodburn Hall, which depicts the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Hoosier politics into the early 20th century.
Protesters wanted the offending art destroyed or removed so the university would “take a stand and denounce hate and intolerance in Indiana and on I.U.’s campus.” Instead, I.U. decided to stop holding classes in the room and keep it sealed off from the general public.
The protest leader called it a “small victory.” While the university has “a long way to go” in terms of overall diversity, the decision was “a step in the right direction. This is progress, and any progress, no matter how big or small, is important.”
Ah, history will not be destroyed but will be ignored. That is progress and “a small victory.”
And what is that hidden history?
Smithsonian Magazine summarizes:
“In the 1920s, the Klan dominated Indiana politics. Counting among its members the governor of Indiana and more than half of the state legislature, it had over 250,000 members, about one-third of all white men in the state. While devoted to denying equal rights to African-Americans, the group also denounced Jews, Catholics and immigrants.
“Only the relentless coverage of the Indianapolis Times turned the tide of popular opinion. Because of the paper’s reporting, the state’s KKK leader, D.C. Stephenson, was convicted of rape and murder of a young schoolteacher.
“Stephenson’s subsequent testimony from prison would bring down the mayor of Indianapolis, L. Ert Slack, and Gov. Edward L. Jackson, both of whom had forged close political and personal relationships with the Klan. In 1928, the Indianapolis Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative work.”
The mural by Benton, a painter who adamantly denounced racism throughout his life, celebrates this victory. It depicts a reporter, photographer and printer in the foreground — “an homage to the press of Indiana for breaking the power of the Klan.” In the center, a white nurse tends both black and white children in City Hospital. The Klan members are sinister, shadowy figures in the background, where public scrutiny had pushed them.
Sounds very much like the mural takes a stand to “denounce hate and intolerance in Indiana,” doesn’t it?
Which brings us to the third way to approach history, which seems not to have occurred to the Left. What public scrutiny does in the present, honestly studying history can do for the present.
We have not always been nice people, so history can be a dark place, Emmons writes about the George Washington flap.
But, it was our mistakes, “as well as our successes, that got us to the place where we are today. Despite the horrors our nation experiences, and how badly mainstream media portrays our culture today, we have freedoms because of, not in spite of, a history that we would do well to publicly honor, flaws and all.”
Study our history to learn from it. Such a simple but powerful idea that you’d think high schools and colleges would be inspired by it, not terrified.
Editor’s note: Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review. As opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, he was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. He can be reached by email at [email protected]