Learning from history

In Buzz by Adam GoodmanLeave a Comment

As a history major in college, I learned three important lessons about the affairs of mankind. Namely, reporting history reflects on those who record it; understanding history reflects on those who hear it; and history is about remembering so it is less likely we repeat those things that later on seem unfathomable.

In the hope that we never again ignore the chilling inhumanity of groupthink that once drove a self-proclaimed master race to extinguish more than 6 million members of the human race.

In the hope that no one can avoid reminders of civic incivility, like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., without recalling the horror of hatred directed at people because of the color of their skin.

So no one will forget the assassinations of transformative American leaders like Lincoln and JFK and MLK, who fought against movements of hatred to leave behind legacies of immense importance.

Presidents of the United States have more to do with history than almost any other Americans. What happened in Charlottesville, Va., needed to be condemned, clearly and without nuance, for what it was and what it could become. This is what the presidential bully pulpit is for, to go after bullies who dishonor and disgrace without conscience or remorse.

After that day in Charlottesville the nation wept, and the loss we felt was not as Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, but as Americans looking again for a moral center grounded in unity and common purpose. Love of family. Defense of country. The never-ending fight for freedom.

That’s why none can ignore Charlottesville by dismissing it as a contest between “some” good and “some” evil, not when a car careens into a crowd as a killing machine driven by bigotry and fueled by hatred. Not when it broke the heart of a nation yearning to cheer again, to believe again that the American Dream is not observed for the few but preserved for the many.

The president needs to do better than he did that day, or in the days that have followed, or history will prove to be a very harsh judge on how an opportunity to pull us together became another performance that — consciously or not — pulled us apart.

Which leads to some fundamental questions. How should we treat history? How should we safeguard truths we want our children to inherit and the world to know? Do we ignore what doesn’t fit neatly into our self-image, or do we challenge ourselves to remember so we don’t repeat what is not? Will no history be left untouched in a rush to extinguish the past to comfort the present without regard for the future?

Moving Confederate statues from places of public honor to museums of history would preserve history without dishonoring the people who are most impacted by it. Just like the German boxcars that sit today in the U.S. Holocaust Museum, or racist Jim Crow-era posters that are part of the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame, they serve as historical markers and future warnings.

But where do we draw the line?

For example, in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, mayors in major cities had to lead during times of racial injustice. Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo was one of those mayors, a tough-cop-turned-tough-mayor who effectively ran a tough city. His slogan was “firm but fair,” once declaring in a campaign ad that “when I’m mayor, you and your family will be safe again.” He delivered on that promise as other cities were potholed in violence, but in the process he produced a rift with the black community.

In his last years a softer Rizzo emerged, and during an attempted political comeback he campaigned in black neighborhoods to repair the strains of the past. He died before reaching that campaign finish line, but a few days later more than 100,000 people lined the streets of Philly to honor his memory.

Now, some in the City of Brotherly Love want to tear down the Frank Rizzo statue near City Hall, in the name of history in a symbolic attempt to rewrite it, not learn from it.

Charlottesville should be a rallying cry for this nation against the kind of unbridled hate that must never find comfort anywhere on Earth. It was one of the president’s worst days, and deserved to be. Let history record that, and be preserved, for the many tomorrows that we face.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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