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. It’s both a history lesson and paean to the bravery of nine teenagers and those who helped them integrate Central High in Little Rock despite resistance from the governor at the time (Orval Faubus) and some locals.
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.
Lee himself was not a fan of commemorating wars with monuments, writing in a letter to David McConaughy, “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
So is removal of monuments 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 (especially because of his conservation legacy and his post-presidency writings), 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 (ya know, like trying to impeach a Supreme Court justice who challenged him).
Fulbright has much to commend him, despite his being a signatory to the Southern Manifesto and his lack of visible 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 international Fulbright Program, his defiance of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (who he saw as a dangerous demagogue and threat 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 Arkansas State University 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 (though I’m not enamored of statues being erected of recent politicians; John F. Kennedy is probably the last one I would deem worthy of that at the moment). 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 (Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, etc.), and for possible renaming of facilities named after them. Was J. William Fulbright a racist? Quite likely, and it appears he slowly came to realize that.
Last year when the petition to remove the statue and name began circulating, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Jaime Adame spoke to several people about it, including Willy Foote, Fulbright’s grandson and founder and CEO of social investment fund Root Capital.
“The last few weeks have seen righteous protests as this country comes to grips with its original sin of slavery against people of color. We are confronting our shameful history with dissenting voices, long ignored. Poppop, as we called Senator Fulbright, was an energetic proponent of the courageous conversation,” Foote said.
He continued: “While fundamentally a progressive man, his signature on the Southern Manifesto was the Faustian pact he made in order to stay in office in Arkansas. Despite driving positive impact where he could and did, from his vocal opposition to McCarthyism and an unjust war in Vietnam to promoting international peace and understanding via scholarships and exchange programs, his race-focused political actions cast a burden of shame on his legacy and one that should be the source of just this kind of conversation happening in Fayetteville.”“Petition wants ‘Fulbright’ off UA’s campus,” Jaime Adame, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 2, 2020.
Fulbright’s good works, though, certainly outweigh the bad as far as I’m concerned. There was racism, yes, but it did not define him in the whole.
It comes down to this: Don’t forget the bad, but don’t forget the good either. You certainly wouldn’t want someone to focus only on your faults.