The debate over the future of our nation’s Confederate past has been raging for some time.
And while the tactics and rhetoric of some who favor tearing down statues and renaming city streets, parks and buildings has ranged from inappropriate to outrageous, the arguments made by their more reasonable allies are worth considering.
It is more than 150 years since the last cannonball was fired on a Civil War battlefield. The America that existed then — or at the turn of the 20th century or in the 1950s and 1960s when many Confederate statues were erected — is also just a memory.
Much has changed, mostly for the better. Our cities and states are more diverse. The face of America is different.
Our collective history, for all its flaws, warrants remembering and more important, it requires understanding.
But it shouldn’t stretch our imaginations far to wonder whether our public spaces might better reflect who we are today if they were occupied by more modern figures, or to think that places of public honor should at the very least offer a fuller picture of how we arrived at our current state and who helped us get here.
And when decisions about the fate of statues and memorials are made through a process that is democratic and transparent — as they should be — there is far less room for legitimate criticism.
While the debate over Confederate figures tends to break along ideological lines, there are many conservatives who sympathize with some of the arguments being made on the left, this writer among them.
That is at least in part because we have been reassured that the push for Confederate statue removal will not become a slippery slope that envelopes our national story.
We have been told that the outlandish calls of people like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has argued that the federal Park Service should cease to maintain the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., are well outside the mainstream and will remain so.
We have been all but guaranteed that America’s founders — the brilliant but flawed men and women who helped build the nation where we are free to engage in open debate about these and other issues — will not be turned into villains or erased from our history books.
Unfortunately, such assurances did not last long.
News broke last week that the Dallas Independent School District is studying the biographies of every person for whom at least 21 schools are named.
The Dallas Morning News reported that, “DISD trustees unanimously expressed interest in supporting name changes at four schools named after Confederate generals — Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston and William L. Cabell elementary schools.”
That doesn’t seem unreasonable. The context and intent of these names matters.
When these schools were established, Dallas Independent School District was predominantly white. Today, the district is almost 70 percent Hispanic, 22 percent African-American and only 5 percent white.
Renaming a select number of schools that memorialize men primarily known for their roles in the Confederate army — particularly given the district’s current demographics — should not be especially controversial.
But the district’s review didn’t stop with Confederate generals.
Among the other names the district is “studying” are Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, James Bowie and William Travis — three Founding Fathers and two heroes of the Alamo, all of whom died decades before the Civil War.
According to the Morning News, the district’s list included names with any connection to the Confederacy, slavery or segregation.
It’s true that each of these men participated in the great sin of slavery. But none of them led great armies in its defense and some of them came to see the evil of the institution long before their descendants would fight a war to decide its fate.
Franklin even became president of the Pennsylvania Anti Slavery Society, which presented a petition for the abolition of slavery to the House of Representatives.
Will such facts — such stories of moral transformation — matter in the great history debates to come? Unlikely.
Those who were certain the slope was safe have good reason to wonder.
Things are getting slippery.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.