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Column: Dealing with the reality of our own past is not divisive

For the Valley News
Published: 7/12/2021 10:10:04 PM
Modified: 7/12/2021 10:10:05 PM

I read the Forum letters, the opinion columns and the editorials in the Valley News every day. I value all the opinions that are expressed in them. I have been thinking about a recent letter and a recent opinion piece and finally decided I had to respond.

The letter was from Marcella Logue (“Thank Republicans for saving the union, freeing the enslaved,” July 2), and it reminds us of Republican efforts to end slavery and later pass voting rights legislation. The letter also mentions Democrats’ despicable efforts to prevent these from happening.

I do indeed thank 19th century Republicans, who were largely responsible for these acts. Shame on the 19th century Democrats who attempted to block them. If both parties had the same philosophies today that they had in the past, I might well be a Republican now. But compare both parties’ philosophies then to what they are today. Is today’s Republican Party working to ensure freedom and expand voting rights? The answer to that is painfully obvious. So thank you to Abraham Lincoln, undoubtedly our greatest president. The entire nation owes our gratitude to the 19th century Republicans who worked for freedom and voting rights. Today’s Republican Party? Not so much.

The opinion piece, by author and professor Corey M. Brooks for The Washington Post (“A statue of Chief Justice Taney never belonged in the Capitol,” July 4), regarded a recent vote in the House of Representatives to remove the bust of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision declaring that African Americans were not, and could never be, citizens of the United States. The Dred Scott decision was indeed that, dreadful, but it unfortunately probably reflected the opinion of a great deal of the country at the time. It is part of our history. My concern is, what happens to the bust of Taney, and is this part of an effort at revisionist history? I hope it can be incorporated into some type of educational display acknowledging this shameful part of our history and the efforts made to overcome it.

Consider what happened in Germany after the Second World War. While the divided country at first struggled to accept responsibility for its Nazi past (communist East Germany blamed it on Western capitalism), in 1990, following reunification, the country began to do a great deal to remember the horrors of its history, including preserving concentration camp sites as memorials and educational centers, creating memorials to Jews and other victims of the Holocaust, and establishing a national day of remembrance. The lesson Germans projected was “never forget,” but also “never again.”

I would hope something similar will be done with the bust of Taney. I want this country to never forget the Dred Scott decision, and also resolve never to let such a mistake happen again.

This all leads me to the question of what is appropriate to discuss and teach in our society. Do we talk about the horrors of the slave trade and how most of us implicitly benefited from it? Do we talk about how it was primarily one political party that worked to end slavery and how another party actively opposed that? Jumping ahead in history, do we discuss how many ethnic groups or nationalities have endured oppression in this country, starting with Native Americans but also including, at different times, Asian, Irish, German and Central European people, etc? More recently, do we discuss oppression of gays, lesbians and transgender people?

How do we deal with the reality of our own past, which certainly has glorious events that we can justly celebrate, but also has many events and actions that are painful to think about?

To my mind, all these subjects are worth discussing and including in school curricula. Discussion about these past events is not divisive; it can be unifying. Discussion about past shameful acts and policies does not make anyone a racist. It only helps one to realize how we as a country can improve ourselves. Only by acknowledging, owning and discussing our entire history can we hope to come to terms with it and, with hope, establish justice and promote the general welfare in a “more perfect union.”

And please keep those letters coming. As I said, I value all the opinions that are expressed in them.

Richard Atkinson lives in Plainfield. He is a past officer and active member of the Plainfield Democratic Committee, but the opinions expressed here are his own.

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