This presents us with a spiritual problem in dealing with statues, names on schools and streets in public places. Our city is rife with them, and now they are contested. How should we decide whom to honor, which to preserve, what to remove and how to replace?
Confederate monuments in Dallas are gone. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee elementary school names have changed. Some say this reflects a “cancel culture” that disregards heritage. But their purpose to begin with was to rewrite history, disregarding the outcome of the Civil War and maintaining white supremacy.
Now Woodrow Wilson High School and R.L. Thornton Freeway are in the queue for review. Wilson was president of the United States, Thornton mayor of Dallas. They did good things for our country and city.
Yet Wilson re-segregated federal agencies and defended the separation of races. He hosted at the White House a viewing of the racist film, “Birth of a Nation,” which spurred the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Speaking of the Klan, Mayor Thornton was a prominent member of the white-hooded group that terrorized Black residents of Dallas. As a banker, he presided over the period of redlining Black neighborhoods. As president of the State Fair of Texas, he limited access to Blacks.
Wilson and Thornton were men of their times. The air they breathed stank of racism. Prevailing mores limited their vision, but they ended up reflecting them more than changing them. They have been honored for decades for the good they did. That there is a reckoning now for being flawed human beings, like the rest of us, is just. This doesn’t take away from their legacy so much as clarify it.
We are at last confronting the lingering legacy of racism. Can any historical figure, then, stand the scrutiny of our times?
Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal” but retained slaves and fathered children with one of them. Abraham Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation but said at one point he would just as soon preserve the Union with slavery than lose it through abolition.
These men were not perfect, but they pointed us toward a “more perfect union.” They showed moral courage to stand up for principles that time has proven right, even though their ideals were unpopular in their time.
The Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that the line between good and evil passes right through every human heart. We should honor those who struggled within themselves to win the battle that made us all better. We should elevate and emulate those whose memory calls us to “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln put it.
All our faiths teach us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Our public squares, therefore, should inspire us to be, as our Pledge of Allegiance declares: “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
GEORGE MASON is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, president of Faith Commons and host of the “Good God” podcast. The Worship section is underwritten by Advocate Publishing and the neighborhood businesses and churches listed here. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.