Thursday, August 6, 2020

Statue of Limitations

This is going to be a controversial topic, but it is one that I want to address for a very specific reason. In the US Capitol, the National Statuary Hall is a collection of 100 statues contributed by 50 states, two statues each. Last month the House of Representatives voted to banish from the Capitol statues of Confederate figures and leaders, part of a broader effort to remove historical symbols of racism and oppression from public spaces. Senate Republicans are refusing to address the issue because they claim that it is up to the states to choose who is represented in the National Statuary Hall. Some of the statues never belonged at the Capitol in the first place, such as Jefferson Davis (CSA Pres.; Mississippi), Alexander Stephens (CSA VP; Georgia) or Robert E Lee (CSA Gen.; Virginia). However, at least one of the statues that the House wants removed are of people who I think redeemed themselves after their service to the Confederacy. 


Joseph Wheeler (Alabama), who was a West Point graduate, resigned from the U.S. Army to serve as a general in the Confederate Army and was considered one of its top cavalry leaders. However, Wheeler later represented Alabama for eight terms as a Democrat in the House. While in Congress, Wheeler worked to heal the breach between the North and the South after the Civil War and championed economic policies that would help rebuild the Southern states. At the age of 61, he volunteered for the Spanish–American War, receiving an appointment to major general of volunteers from President William McKinley. During the war, he was in command of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, and then served in the Philippine-American War, where he left the volunteer service and was commissioned a brigadier general in the regular army, reentering the organization he had resigned from over 39 years before. I will admit that the statue should be replaced, because it portrays Wheeler in his Confederate uniform, but I think it should be replaced with a new statue of Wheeler. 


Honestly, the rest can go. The only other one that comes close to being redeemable is that of US Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Douglass White. White enlisted in the Confederate Army and was captured by Union forces in 1865. After the Civil War, he served in the state Senate and U.S. Senate before President Grover Cleveland nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1894. He became chief justice in 1910 and served in that position until his death in 1921. However, White’s record on race during his time on the Supreme Court is mixed at best. He sided with the Supreme Court majority in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the legality of state segregation to provide "separate but equal" public facilities in the United States, despite protections of the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection of the laws. In one of several challenges to Southern states' grandfather clauses, used to disfranchise African-American voters at the turn of the century, he wrote for a unanimous court in Guinn v. United States, which struck down many Southern states' grandfather clauses. 


Some statues of Confederates have already been removed. One of those is that of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, who formerly was one of Alabama’s statues. His statue was removed in 2009 and replaced with one of Helen Keller. Curry was removed because he was deemed racist and a former Confederate. Here’s the issue though, Curry did serve in the Confederate Army, but after the war, he was president of Howard College, now Samford University in Birmingham. Also, after the war he studied for the ministry and became a preacher, but the focus of his work for the rest of his life was free education in the South. His pro-slavery speeches from before the Civil War and membership in the Confederate House of Representatives may demonstrate strong ties to the southern cause; however, his efforts to promote education for Blacks during the Reconstruction era up through the end of the 19th century are reflective of ideals that were not shared by many of his contemporaries. The statue was removed anyway, and maybe Helen Keller is a better representation for Alabama.


This brings me to the inspiration for this post. The North Carolina legislature has voted to replace a statue of former North Carolina Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, who is perhaps best known today for his campaigns to advance white supremacy. I agree it should be replaced. The problem is who North Carolina wants to represent the state instead. North Carolina wants to replace Aycock with a statue of the evangelical preacher Billy Graham.  Graham may have been the spiritual advisor to every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama before his death in 2018, but he wasn’t known for welcoming all people into Christianity. In 1973, he said that homosexuality is a “sinister form of perversion” in his advice column, responding to a girl who wrote in and said she was in love with another girl. “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of spiritual welfare,” he wrote. “Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected and will be judged by God’s holy standards.” He then claimed that the U.S. “applauded” homosexuality because “morals have so eroded” and advised the girl to be “converted” and that “such reformation is possible for you.”


In 1993, he said that AIDS was “God’s punishment” for homosexuality. “I could not say for sure, but I think so,” he said. Two weeks later he retracted the remark, saying, "I don't believe that, and I don't know why I said it," but we all know why he said it. He believed it. Graham also opposed same-sex marriage, and in 2012 he took out full-page ads in favor of North Carolina Amendment 1 which banned it in North Carolina. Graham's stated position was that he did not want to talk about homosexuality as a political issue. Corky Siemaszko, writing for NBC News, noted that after the 1993 incident, Graham "largely steered clear of the subject." Graham may have kept mostly silent publicly after the 1993 incident, but it’s obvious he must not have privately. His son, who is now CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and of Samaritan's Purse, is one of the most virulent homophobic men in America. He is also a major Trump supporter. One example of his vitriol towards gay people came when he attacked former presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg. Graham attacked Buttigieg for his homosexuality and marriage to another gay man in April 2019, tweeting "Mayor Buttigieg says he's a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women."  Franklin has kept his father’s website which still says that sex is sin unless it’s “within a marriage between a man and a woman” and that the Bible “speaks only negatively of homosexual behavior whenever it is mentioned.”


So, here is my question: Why is it acceptable to place a statue of an extremely influential homophobe in the National Statuary Hall in this day and age?


The answer is simple. What it boils down to is this: within American politics, it is still acceptable by many to be homophobic, but from many of the same people it is not acceptable to be a racist. What is the difference? The difference is that with all the gains the LGBTQ+ community have made, we are still second-class citizens and the religious right wants to keep it that way. For many out there, LGBTQ+ lives do not matter. It is inherently wrong to be either racist or homophobic. Americans must realize that. 


George Safford said...

Bless you for your stand on this issue. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The difficulty with statues is that anyone being so honored had in her/his (and let's not exclude women) lifetime episodes that while alive caused no concern but posterity deems a no-no. If Lee is to be removed, despite his commendable conduct after Appomattox, then surely Wheeler should go as well. They were both rebels. As to Billy Graham, he is the symbol and embodiment of a white, masculine, Christian (all of them supremacist and intolerant) US that is in full retreat and will shortly become a no-no. He is now being commemorated as part of what is a new "lost cause". Did you buy into the original "lost cause" when young? Roderick

Joe said...

Roderick, I was very much taught the Lost Cause in school, and I guess I did believe it until I started to study the Civil War more critically. A professor told me one time something that changed my mind about the Lost Cause and the idea that the Civil War was not about slavery. He said that no matter how pretty a carpet is on top, it's always ugly and drab on bottom and no one wants to see the ugliness of the bottom, but it makes the foundation of any carpet. He said slavery and the Confederacy was the same way, you can try to make it pretty and all about states rights, but at the end of the day, there is always the underneath that is the foundation and that is slavery.

I went to a private school until I went away to college. Our teachers wouldn't' even teach the Civil Rights Movement. They actually skipped those chapters and said they were unimportant. It makes me sad and angry looking back on it. I was very different when I taught. I even took a group of students to be part of a high school conversation meeting that was part of the Bloody Sunday 50th anniversary. The conversation was based on why the schools in that county were so segregated. They county is about 75% Black, but less than half a dozen white children attend the public schools. The rest of the white kids are either home schooled or go to private schools like the one I taught at. Taking students to be part of that conversation led to a lot of backlash against me, but I stood my ground. They needed to know the history of where they lived.

I do see a difference between Lee and Wheeler. Lee went on to be a university president, and he did work to heal some of the wounds of the Civil War. However, he was the Commander of the Confederacy Armies. He was one of the most important figures in the Confederacy, and I've never thought he did enough to publicly dispel the myth of the Lost Cause. Wheeler on the other hand did rejoin the US Army. But I do see your point. No matter what, Wheeler was a Confederate general and leaders, and legends has it he did apparently yell at the Battle of San Juan Hill, "We've go the Yankee on the run boys." I am not sure who they will replace his statue with if they do replace it. With Republicans in charge of the legislature in Alabama, I think it is unlikely they will choose a Civil Rights Leader. Rosa Parks already has a statue in the Capitol, but not part of the National Statuary Hall, and John Lewis is more likely to be claimed by Georgia even though his roots are in Alabama. I'd probably pick William Rufus King since he was VP, but he has his problems with race too.

We'll just have to see what happens.

Anonymous said...

Dear Joe, thank you for the long and valuable response. As I recall, a historian claimed that the cause of the Civil War lay not in slavery or in states' rights, but instead it was a revolt by the South against the 1861 census which showed that the region had in every way lost the primacy (economic and political) that it had held since 1788 and which it refused to relinquish. I am fascinated by your account of your childhood in terms of frace but a blog comment is not really the place to make a response. As to Lee and Wheeler, "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there," and nothing and nobody is exempt from posthumous censure. Bless you, Roderick

Joe said...

Roderick, I had not heard the Census theory before, but I'll be honest, I never studied the Civil War in depth. Every time I signed up for a Civil War class in college and grad school, for one reason or another it was always cancelled. So, my Civil War knowledge comes from the periphery such as classes about Southern History, American history in general, etc.

I you ever want to talk more, you are always welcome, as are any of my readers, to email me anytime: