To the Editor:
When will we stop perpetuating ignorance in the name of social progress?
I read Mr. Clennon L. King’s letter of last week with great frustration. While Mr. King’s letter is guised in the theme of justice and equality and beneficent upbringings for children, it seeks to wipe out one injustice by the perpetration of another, starting with the significant stretch taken to grab our attention from the start, referencing a “Confederate statue” on M.V., which, it turns out, is actually a statue of a Union soldier. Mr. King’s letter then seems to hold the view that truth should never get in the way of anyone who is trying to obliterate the evil they seem to want to see perpetrated upon them, whether it is or isn’t really there.
Please let us dispense with the simple formality to agree that slavery is bad, and that corrupt, vicious slavery is a blight on humanity. However, let’s not ignore facts if we are going to judge those who came more than 150 years before us, who lived in a very different world. For instance, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, there were over 450,000 slaves owned in the territories that would fall on the Union side of the War between the States. That is more than the population today of the cities proper of Miami, Fla., New Orleans, La., and Cleveland, Ohio, and more than the entire metropolitan statistical area populations today in places like Huntsville, Ala., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Savannah, Ga. That slave count was up almost 100,000 from only 20 years earlier, though as a percentage of all slaves in the U.S. at that time, the growth in slave numbers in the to-be-Confederate states certainly outpaced their Union counterparts. Slavery and the prewar era in the U.S. cannot be simplified into an all-or-nothing view separating North and South.
Some people become “enlightened” sooner than others; such is the nature of social progress. Therefore, realize that we judge our forefathers through the lenses of our own times, and often the difference between being “right” and “wrong” is very literally just a matter of who won the war. When we have disagreements, we must bring people together and create consensus, and even after achieving that, we must not forget to continue to respect the dignity of those who haven’t yet come around to that point of view.
At the conclusion of almost every athletic competition I can think of, the winning and losing teams gather to acknowledge each other’s efforts, usually shaking hands in the middle of the ground they were battling on moments before. In the decades after the end of the War between the States, Union and Confederate soldiers gathered by the tens of thousands together in Gettysburg and elsewhere to remember the losses all suffered. That doesn’t mean they all agreed with the point of view that prevailed, it means they could put it behind them and reunite, the dignity of all preserved. History shows that when nations who win wars use their victories as an excuse to oppress and delegitimize the losing side, it only leads to more pain, hatred, and even more war.
There are plenty of social injustices in this world that need real attention and focus, but the statue of the Union soldier in O.B. is not one of them. In the U.S., with regard to slavery, justice won out, Mr. King — in the North and the South. What’s more, thankfully, many people who actually lived on both sides of the war that decided that outcome saw fit generations ago to bury the hatchet and reunite this nation the best they could, at least person to person. Kudos to them. Teach your children and grandchildren that lesson, the lesson of being a good winner and uniting, instead of dividing, which can stimulate healthy and productive conversation about how we all need to learn to live together on this earth, and how all of us learn and evolve our understanding of this complex and crazy world over time. Recognize that we will not all agree on every topic, but if we have a more productive attitude and dialogue about those things we disagree about, with respect for both sides and perspectives and the people who hold them, truth and justice may just become the American way. Continuing to condemn, and here attempting to wipe out the memory of those whose views did not prevail, isn’t productive, and only further embeds the wrong attitude in yet another generation.