On the ninth of July 1776, a group of roughly 40 soldiers and sailors in the new American military, under the command of Captain Oliver Brown, slipped down under the cover of night to the Bowling Green in the lower end of Manhattan and affixed ropes to the statue of King George III. They pulled and pulled but the statue would not fall. The ropes broke and the men reattached them to the hated sculpture. Finally, the visage of the King lay in ruins on the ground. The lead from which the statue was cast would yield 42,088 musket balls that would be fired at the British occupiers. And yet, with the hated statue gone, somehow we still can remember what happened that warm night so very long ago.
I thought of that effigy recently as we witnessed a number of statues being removed or disfigured in response to the long overdue awakening in many Americans regarding our deeply troubled racial history. I recall that over my years teaching political science at the Air Force Academy, I would often find my students woefully unaware of our nation’s often shameful past. I recall telling most classes that I personally believed racial issues to be the most important social issue our nation faces, largely due to the fact that so few of them (and their parents) would agree.
One remarkable day at the academy in the late 1980s, I had the true honor of escorting a civil rights icon and hero around the campus prior to his speech to the cadet wing. James Meredith, an Air Force veteran, was the first African-American student admitted to the then-fully segregated University of Mississippi. He told me that he dealt with the hatred and wickedness he faced continuously by thinking of his time at UMiss as a military “combat” assignment. We talked for three hours about the state of race relations in the United States. During that remarkable discussion, I asked Mr. Meredith about an incident I’d had in class a couple years earlier. In response to a question I posed to my students regarding the civil rights movement, one young cadet offered what he thought was a witty quip, but which was actually a deeply racist comment. In response, I railed on the cadet, stating that if that was really what he thought, he had no place in my Air Force. I was quite firm, and the young man was rather chastened. Mr. Meredith listened to my story, and then gently told me he thought I had handled the situation quite poorly. He said that I had not taught the cadet not to be racist, but rather had taught him to keep quiet about being a racist. And that, Mr. Meredith believed, made him more dangerous. Those words trouble me to this day, as I struggle with my own white privilege and biases.
History has much to teach, both as inspiration and as cautionary tales. But history is also subject to the same foibles and prejudice as any other human endeavor. For example, I strongly agree that monuments to Confederate generals should be removed from public spaces and consigned to museums where their place in history can be more fully told. As a career military officer myself, I have no respect for those who took up arms against the United States and committed treason. Robert E. Lee, for example, is not a noble man who fought for a great principle. Rather, he was a brilliant U.S. Army officer who forswore his oath to wage an insurrection for a vile cause. His image certainly belongs in a museum of history, but not in a place of honor on a public square. But I am less certain about, say, a statue of George Washington. And I cannot help but wonder if that represents a legitimate historical perspective, or yet another example of a middle-aged white guy not getting it.
I struggle with these issues, fully aware that my understanding of the issue of race in Colorado and the United States is deeply influenced by my own upbringing and opportunities. I overcame, well, very little, in the way of obstacles to a good education and a successful career in uniform. I have sought out discussions with leaders on these issues, and at age 62 am only sure that I do not truly understand the depth and breadth of our nation’s issues around race.
I am glad we are talking more about the fact that Black Lives Matter, and what that means in our society. I am glad that NASCAR has finally banned the Confederate battle flag. As a former military cop, I am glad to see we are discussing policing in this nation, especially in communities of color. And I am glad that there is, it appears, a window opening to discuss a shameful part of our American culture. I know that I am part of the problem too, but I’m trying hard to get smarter.