Ron Radosh

You Must Read Gettysburg Film Director Ron Maxwell's Take on Erasing Confederate Symbols

After the murders at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by a young white racist, a consensus has been reached on the issue of taking down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s soldier’s monument, where it has flown since being removed from the state capitol in 2000.

The flag was flown from the capitol only since the early 1960s, when segregationists resurrected what was in fact the Confederate battle flag as their symbol for opposition to desegregation. Other states quickly followed South Carolina’s example.

Evidently, this may not be enough to satisfy the cultural enforcers on the American Left.

Suddenly, anything in our history that is somehow connected with the sin of slavery — and it was a sin against humanity — is fair game to be excised from America’s past. As John Hinderaker writes at Powerline, the Democrats are getting “their crazy on.” First it’s the Confederate flag, then statues, monuments, and our currency that celebrate racists, then perhaps the American flag itself.

Remember those leftists who after 9/11 refused to fly the flag, since they argued it stood for oppression?

For a few years, I lived in West Virginia. Throughout the state, and indeed in many buildings at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, there are many buildings named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd. There are so many roads and institutions throughout the state honoring Byrd that you have to stop counting. Byrd, an honored Democrat who was considered the Senate’s master of its rules and a mainstay in the first two years of the Obama administration, was Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan.

After the Civil War, the Republicans were the party of civil rights; the Democrats the party of racism and the evolving system of segregation.

A few days ago, CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield moved on from the Confederate flag to demanding that Americans think about taking down the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Washington Monument will probably be next — after all, our first president was also a slaveholder.

Others have pointed out that Woodrow Wilson, upon taking office, moved to institute segregation in government offices as official policy. At Instapundit, Randy Barnett skillfully presents the entire racist record of Wilson’s presidency. How, he asks, can a scholarly center be named the Woodrow Wilson Center, or the political scientists’ association offer a Woodrow Wilson award, or professorships be named after him at Princeton University, at which he was once its president?

Others have noted the racist character of the multi-Academy Award winning 1939 release, Gone With the Wind. Should it no longer be shown or even celebrated, like MGM did at the time of its 75th anniversary with restored DVD box sets and screenings in both Atlanta and then throughout the country? I doubt that any plans for a 100th anniversary will still take place, as the studio obviously was planning.

For an excellent discussion on how we should handle impulses to expunge our past by rewriting history, I highly recommend a reading of film director Ronald F. Maxwell’s eloquent and powerful words, spoken on June 7, 2009, at the annual commemoration of the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery, and offered online at Huffington Post.

I know it may come as a shock to you that such a memorial exists. Even more shocking, however, is that President Barack Obama, as Maxwell writes, “to his everlasting honor, and in keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, on Memorial Day just two weeks ago sent a wreath to Moses Ezekiel’s monument to the Confederate dead.” Ezekiel, himself a Confederate soldier, went on to become one of America’s preeminent sculptors; he worked in Rome, to which he had moved. He had become, as his obituary in the New York Times stated, a “distinguished and greatly beloved American sculptor.”

President Obama sent the wreath despite having received a letter from a group of professors urging him not to do so. The list of signers includes very distinguished scholars such as James McPherson and Ira Katznelson. It also includes one Bill Ayers, who as we know is an expert in blowing up statues of which he disapproves. How did Obama deal with this? He also sent a wreath to the memorial of African-American soldiers who died fighting for the Union. Undoubtedly, the leftist professors would consider his doing so an act of “moral equivalency.”

Maxwell goes on:

We cannot wish our ancestors away, nor should we. In the act of designing and erecting these monuments and statues they are telling us what was important to them in their time. By leaving for us, their progeny, a record in stone, they are expressly calling upon us, their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to remember.

Shall we do as the professors who signed the letter to our president asked him to do — shall we heap scorn upon these monuments and chastise those who will not? Should we do as their doctrinaire kin in Afghanistan did? Shall we, like the Taliban, destroy our statues with dynamite because they offend a prevailing dogma? Shall we disinter the bones of our ancestors like the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution did, scattering their unearthed remains to the winds — first to be reviled, then ever to be forgotten?

These lines nail it. If we tear apart our past because contemporary standards have changed, we will lose our understanding of how our democracy has been constantly evolving since the birth of the republic.

Should we, as Maxwell asks, tear down every statue and monument, since so many of those depicted do not live up to the values and mores of our current age? Are we to become the kind of cultural commissars that existed in Stalin’s Soviet Union, when the past was constantly rewritten and previous figures literally erased from the history books (including their photos) because they had become politically incorrect to the dictator’s current policy needs?

Maxwell writes:

Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. They also founded a new country which enshrined liberty in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yes, Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson fought on the side of a fledgling nation that practiced the indefensible and intolerable institution of slavery. They were also men of great honor, impeccable integrity, and extraordinary personal courage.

Cannot our nation honor the roads chosen by all our ancestors, Frederick Douglass as well as Robert E. Lee? Cannot we understand that both played their part in moving our nation ahead to the point at which it now stands? They are both part of our past history; to expunge one is to assure that future generations will never understand the past. Must we, as Maxwell writes, dehumanize figures of our past for ideological reasons? Is sculptor Moses Ezekiel to be no longer honored, but condemned as a war criminal? Are we to dig up the graves of the Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

Let us pause and consider where this current bout of political correctness is leading us, before it is too late.