At a Capitol hearing last week, Assemblyman Don Wagner voiced a concern that has been on the minds of many in the debate over stripping the names of Confederate leaders from California schools and roads: How far is too far?
“We need to recognize we are on a bit of a slippery slope,” the Irvine Republican said. “I don’t know where we stop.”
It’s a sentiment echoed across the country and throughout time as Americans struggle to balance the memory of an often-ugly past with sensitivity to those for whom its commemoration is offensive. Should we be honoring figures who committed terrible deeds? Is relegating them to books and museums tantamount to erasing our history?
Those questions came once again to the fore this summer when the South Carolina Legislature, following a racially motivated shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine worshippers dead, voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds for the first time in five decades.
Outside the capitol, protesters argued that the flag is merely a symbol of Southern pride and heritage. But African Americans, including President Barack Obama, cheered that an emblem of slavery and hatred had finally been lowered, after years of raising objections to its placement.
Not every cause emerges from such dramatic circumstances. With changing cultural norms and expanding historical knowledge comes a drive to revisit monuments to the past.
In 2007 and 2008, Sacramento activists successfully campaigned to remove the name of local philanthropist Charles M. Goethe from a middle school and a park in the city. The discussions were prompted by the research of Tony Platt, a historian then teaching at California State University, Sacramento, who uncovered writings by Goethe supporting white supremacy and the Nazis while working on a book about the eugenics movement.
Platt, now an affiliated scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law & Society, said people who engaged in horrific things were often elevated to folk heroes by political elites without any public deliberation. Revisiting who we choose to memorialize provides a more democratic opportunity to define ourselves as a society, he added.
“I welcome the slippery slope,” Platt said. “Having public discussions about these issues are educational, and in some cases, more important than the actual outcome.”
California is increasingly undertaking those debates, though many remain highly controversial.
Residents in Fort Bragg, the small Mendocino County community, have pushed back firmly against recent requests from some lawmakers that the town rename itself. Originally a 19th-century Army outpost named for officer Braxton Bragg, who later became a Confederate general, Fort Bragg officials argue the connection is too tenuous to matter.
A resolution recommending that California replace a statue in Congress of Father Junipero Serra with one of astronaut Sally Ride passed the state Senate this spring, but was pulled ahead of the pope’s scheduled U.S. visit this fall to canonize Serra. Despite criticisms of Serra and his impending sainthood because of the treatment American Indians received in the string of California missions he founded, opponents called the resolution an insult to Catholics.
Assembly Bill 30, which would require a handful of California high schools to ditch their “Redskins” mascots, has been working its way through the Legislature this session. Tied to a national effort, aimed at the Washington football team, by American Indian groups who find the term offensive, AB 30 has received opposition at every stage from those who counter that the mascot is a sign of respect. A parallel movement to remove the slur “squaw” from place names, which began with a Minnesota law in 1995 and has since spread to other states, has never gained much traction in California.
“California has a self-image of itself culturally as a region of progress and multiculturalism and diversity,” Platt said. “That has been so central to the myth of the California story that we have not been able to address the deep wounds in the history of the state.”
The response can vary by community. Opponents often object to these efforts as an attack on history – political correctness run amok that fails to recognize how times have changed and sanitizes the past.
In 2006, Davis took the name of 19th-century pioneer John Sutter off a city street because of historical accounts that he enslaved, abused and raped American Indians; up Highway 80 in Auburn, residents scoffed at the notion of rechristening their own Sutter Place.
The Capitol community is now engaged in similar discussions with Senate Bill 539, the Confederate names proposal, which also was prompted by the Charleston church massacre. The measure would affect public facilities in California, including two Southern California schools named for Gen. Robert E. Lee and a development in Stockton with streets themed around the Civil War.
“The Civil War period was not one that we should ever celebrate. We should learn from it,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said during the hearing last week.
Those who fought for the Confederacy were traitors who tried to divide the nation in defense of a system of racial oppression, she added. Wiping their names from public buildings “is most important for the symbolism and for the messages and the lessons that our children will learn.”
Wagner ultimately voted for SB 539, but he shares some of those concerns about a future in which modifying our monuments turns to “airbrushing” the history that is taught.
“Too much effort is being expended to kind of scrub the public square,” he said in an interview. “You won’t find a flawless leader.”
He points to the example of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed an order to intern more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Will people call for his name to be removed from buildings one day? Or does the totality of his life and leadership outweigh the bad actions?
Wagner believes so: “I hope we have the wisdom to get off that slope.”