Sam Burnham, Curator
The South is an abundantly diverse place. The South has a twisted and ugly past. These two facts compliment each other. One would likely not exist without the other.
This is a holiday weekend in America. It has been for quite some time. Even before the advent of the MLK holiday this was a holiday weekend across the South. With Robert E. Lee being born on January 19, 1807 and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson being born on January 21, 1824, many Southerners were celebrating this weekend before MLK rose to prominence.
In recent years there has been a nasty trend of denigrating Lee, Jackson, and anyone else found to be in anyway affiliated with the Confederacy. We are expected to ignore any merits attributable to such people. Slavery and the Confederacy's acceptance of it are supposedly enough to erase any and all virtue of anyone who advocated or fought for Southern independence. These two men, specifically, after more than a century of respect and admiration from people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, are now labeled as traitors because they refused to side with Washington, D.C. and take up arms against their families, their friends, and their neighbors. How that amounts to treason, I'll never know.
In a nation as diverse as America, with the history we've survived, with the evolution our society has undertaken, it is ill-advised to delete parts of the story. Sure, it might make us feel better about ourselves to highlight the shortcomings of great men. It might make us feel powerful to cast down the monuments that were built for them. But were are only harming ourselves. We are shrinking our story, editing our history, and trying to delete the parts that we don't like. But in doing so, we delete far more good than bad. For all their faults, our society does not currently produce enough men of the character and integrity of Jackson and Lee. And that is the real reason they have come under assault. It is shameful and it has to stop.
So when a figure like Martin Luther King steps onto the scene, a man who, taken on the whole, had serious flaws and faults, as we all do, he should not displace the great men of the past. While pointing out his flaws today will bring accusations of racism, the pens of his contemporaries were more free to point out his flaws. But if we only focus on his flaws and refuse to honor his virtues, we miss the progress we’ve made as a society. We should honor such a man. The point in honoring such a man is to give him a seat among the figures of American greatness. To tear those historic figures down doesn't elevate a man like King, it places him on a lower stoop. If no greatness came before him, did he really do much to rise to where he arrived? Did he merely take a place beside men of no virtue?
In this struggle to remember all the great men this weekend symbolizes, a sense of rivalry has grown. Some of those who would honor Jackson and Lee denigrate King. Some of those who would honor King denigrate Jackson and Lee. That perpetuates division and doesn’t honor anyone. It only cheapens any commemoration that is held.
On this holiday weekend, it is ok to memorialize Jackson, Lee, and King. It is ok to pick and choose to remember or ignore any combination of the three. What is not ok is to dismiss the achievements, the scarifies, and the character of men who obviously had it. Do not slander the great men of our past. Learn from their virtues, learn from their sins. Let their examples be way markers and guides as we progress as a nation. The American experiment is more than just an idea. It is a journey. Every mile is important and we forget that at our peril.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire