This seems like a good time for Americans to remember their Faulkner, and one of his most famous lines: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
For several years now, we have argued over whether visual reminders of our past amount to an endorsement of all they represent. South Carolina began this debate when it — appropriately, in my view — removed a Confederate battle flag long displayed on its state capitol grounds, after a white supremacist shot 12 worshippers, nine of them fatally, inside a historic black church in Charleston.
From there, and as many of us who agreed with that flag’s removal warned at the time, the proverbial slope has proved slippery. A few recent examples, two from Georgia, demonstrate as much. The past is not just alive, but more complicated than our insta-tweet society acknowledges.
Nike gave us the first example this past week. The company designed, manufactured and shipped a sneaker honoring the Fourth of July with a 1770s-era flag on the back, only to withdraw the product after paid endorser Colin Kaepernick said that symbol is associated with a period in which America condoned slavery.
By that light, we should tolerate nothing predating at least Jan. 1, 1863, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Not to mention that, for all the grievous shortcomings of our nation when it comes to race, the moral logic driving what progress we have made originated in 1776, with the declaration that “all men are created equal.”
That was the “promissory note” which Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 said the civil rights movement “had come to cash.” That promise from 1776, as King argued, wasn’t dead, or even past. It was alive, even if it went nearly 200 years without being fully kept.
Now for the complication: Betsy Ross, who is credited with designing that famous flag, was a Quaker. No religious group in the 13 colonies was more vocally or ardently opposed to slavery. Like Ross, they chiefly lived in Pennsylvania, where the Continental Congress voted for independence.
The fact their view did not prevail at the time is a tragedy. But to condemn as irredeemable the entire era, with all of its peoples and symbols, and the force for good they set in motion, is wrong.
Another example is smack dab in Atlanta. MARTA is consulting nearby residents about possibly changing the name of its Bankhead rail station. The reason? The station, taking after the erstwhile Bankhead Highway, was named for a Confederate soldier and alleged KKK member, John Hollis Bankhead.
Complicating matters here is what the name Bankhead has come to mean to most 21st-century Americans: a geographic reference made by numerous Atlanta-based rap artists.
One suspects most people opining on the issue had no clue about the namesake. (Confession: I have no idea for whom my own street was named.) Even so, and even if the dead soldier was indeed a full-fledged racist, could there be much more of an afterlife comeuppance than to have his name re-appropriated by the very group of people he hated?
Finally, we return again to King’s words, and another famous reference now and again in the news: Stone Mountain.
Recall that, before last year’s gubernatorial election, Stacey Abrams endorsed sandblasting the famous carving of a Confederate trio from the mountain’s face. Recall as well a different idea floated by others: Commemorating King by placing a Liberty Bell replica atop the granite giant. (“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!” King declared in 1963.)
The bell tribute is entirely worthy, but not the sand-blasting. After all, couldn’t the bell lose some of its symbolic power if it didn’t visibly tower over the men whose cause was lost for good?
Alive and kicking: That’s our past, still actively jabbing at our soft places. History is a complicated thing. The way to treat it properly is not with sanitation but with honesty and forthrightness, about the good as well as the bad.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.