Strong societies teach respect for history

If you ever visit the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, you will find the Eternal Light Peace Memorial.

The top half of the monument is constructed of Alabama limestone, the bottom half of granite from Maine, and, dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 on the 75th anniversary of the battle, it was meant as a national tribute to the soldiers of both armies who gave their lives on that field.

More than that, though, it is one among many examples of how the Union chose peace, unity and reconciliation over division, resentment and hate by graciously honoring the heroes of the old Confederacy. Indeed, when, towards war’s end, President Lincoln was urged to hang rebellious Southern leaders, Lincoln responded “Judge not that ye be not judged.”

Rebuking the spirit of respect and reconciliation practiced by Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt, local NAACP President James Muwakkil has decided to cast his stone at the portrait of Robert E. Lee hanging on the wall of the Old County Courthouse. But if our county commission were to give in to his demand and remove the painting, would they not be surrendering to a destructive logic that would also bring down the county that bears Lee’s name and countless other markers to our history and heritage?

During the war, there was no greater collaboration in the Confederacy than that between Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but right here in Downtown Fort Myers, Lee and Jackson Streets still run side-by-side as if the war had never ended. Must these roads be renamed? Must our county commissioners lie awake at night worrying that someday Mr. Muwakkil will realize that Fort Myers was named for Abraham Myers, who during the Civil War served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate Army?

Mr. Muwakkil might have been given a powerful platform when he was made president of the local chapter of the NAACP, but what he should have been given was a map and an eraser.

He tells us that Lee’s portrait “is a symbol of racism,” but if we hunt after all the old ghosts of American history, we will find buried everywhere we look the bones of white racism. The Civil War was a war for independence fought by a slave-holding republic, but then so was the Revolutionary War, as a slave-holding general named George Washington led an army from 13 slave-holding colonies. Should we dynamite the slave-holding half of Mount Rushmore to meet the modern moral standards of Mr. Muwakkil? Will he demand drone strikes on the Washington Monument?

History is safe for moral grandstanding and demagoguery in the same way that hindsight is always 20/20. Slavery is an incomprehensible evil to all of us, but wouldn’t it have been as common to Lee as abortion and migrant wage slavery appear to us today? Do we hold, say, General Petraeus responsible for our country’s current moral failings?

Not one of our heroes can escape criticism. Not Lincoln or Lee, not King nor Reagan. They all had their flaws, but I would argue that to unify us, we need to admire and respect them all. Let blacks admire the gallantry and sense of duty possessed by Lee. Let southern whites study and appreciate those black soldiers who fought to defeat him. If a future multi-cultural America is to survive in harmony, it can be no other way.

Lee was a great man, maybe the second greatest in our history after Washington, and, whether it be with the love and reverence of a friend, or the distant respect of a foe, everyone in Lee County can find something in him to admire.

Quentin B. Fairchild
Fort Myers