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Cleaning up history will not change it

By TJ Ray

Great excitement stirred the university campus in Puerto Rico where I taught my first year. The cause was a visit by Martin Luther King. A couple of years later things were a bit more tense in Starkville when I was at MSU. Many of us often went to the bus station to watch Freedom Riders go by. I well recall the confusion after the three young men were killed in Philadelphia. Later I think of the visit by Ole Miss members of the American Association of University Professors who came to State to tell us about the confrontation in Oxford when James Meredith enrolled. When I moved on to graduate school in Oregon, I had many conversations with classmates who rode the bus to Alabama to march in Selma. While I was at the University of Houston, I remember students from up the street marching to our campus from Texas Southern because they knew they would get more television coverage.

And then there was the University of Mississippi. For most of my many years there, students and faculty calmly walked past the statue across from Ventress Hall. To my knowledge, no one ever required an ambulance because of the trauma they suffered as they did so. Likewise with the statue on the Square. Why, for some time a stalwart young black man sat at the base of that statue with a Confederate or State flag beside him. Whether that led to his death or not I can’t say.

In all those years and in all those places, I don’t think I ever heard mention of statues. Nor was there a mania to rewrite history or shape it to fit the bias of this or that group. Now, sadly, our landscape is altered. And though it may not be the politically correct thing to do, I want to comment on that new vista: it stinks!

I was born and raised in Mississippi. Somewhere in my past there may have been one or two ancestors who owned slaves. I doubt it. My impression from listening to the old folks when I was young is that we may have come from po’ white trash. And that’s fine with me because what they did or did not cannot be changed one iota. And I passionately refuse to apologize for what they did. If they fought for the South, I can only hope they fought honorably and, if need be, died the same way.

If I remember the history courses I had in high school and later at Mississippi College, slavery was a social condition, if not an issue, from the founding of this country. The impulse to go back and try to “clean” it up by changing place names and removing statues is not going to improve our society in any way. While not busy helping to shape the country and its laws, a fellow named Jefferson was using one of his female slaves.

I’ve yet to hear any talk of tearing down Monticello. Or the Washington Monument.

Perhaps some of the right thinking academic units on campus are already making a list and checking it twice about which other buildings on campus and which streets in town must be renamed to save the Republic. It’s possible that their role is better suited to teaching an old history than creating a new one. Given Nathan Bedford Forrest’s creation of the KKK, perhaps moving a statue of him is appropriate. Given the virulent racist speeches by Vardaman when he ran the state may justify a new name on a building named after him. But in the main one might encourage academics not to assume they know it all and should steer the rest of us. History teachers should teach history — not create or recreate it. From my knowledge of another fine governor we had, I must wonder what he would think of his institute.

No, kind folks, changing a street or building name, moving some statues from here to there is not the cure-all for the malignity eating our country. But the movement and its spin-offs into dampening free speech might well hasten its demise.

So I would say to folks who can’t stand the pain of walking past a statue or anything associated with the Confederacy, just don’t go there. If you must, have an EMS on your speed dial.

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.