On Sunday the University of Texas at Austin removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate State of America, from its location in front of the school’s main tower. The statue will be moved to a history museum on campus.
Not everyone on the Austin campus is happy about the move. Yesterday two professors wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing the removal of the Davis statue. Al Martinich teaches philosophy and Tom Palaima teaches classics.
They make a compelling case. Here is a taste:
Removing the statue is a serious moral and ethical mistake. Remembering our lamentable behavior in the past is an important part of helping to ensure that a similar behavior does not recur, especially if that remembering does what colleges, particularly public colleges, were created to do: produce educated citizens who can make sound ethical decisions.
“Remember the reason the statue of Jefferson Davis was erected in the first place and what it symbolized for over eight decades” is not as pithy as “Remember the Alamo.” But it is just as important. Remembering the long and inglorious success of racism in our institution and our society is as important as remembering a glorious defeat in battle…
UT-Austin should unequivocally acknowledge its history and assert its commitment to do better. We should have retained all the statues. As it is now, we should put plaques on the remaining statues and on Davis’s when it gets to its final, high-dollar place of honor. The plaques should have texts such as this: “The University of Texas at Austin regrets its long association with people who supported the system of segregation that denied equality to African-Americans and other oppressed minorities as if it were an acceptable part of civilized life.”
The university’s decision in the case of the Confederate statues runs counter to the core values it has long promoted. Carved in large letters prominently across the façade of the south entrance of the UT Tower are the liberating words of John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The motto on the official seal of the university readsDisciplina Praesidium Civitatis: “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.” The recent decision is not faithful to those values, nor is it in keeping with our university motto: “What starts here changes the world.”
All human lives matter, including historical lives. For over a century, people of color in Texas were treated as unworthy of the full rights and privileges of American citizens. We should not segregate any part of our past in a moral skeleton closet. Keeping, contextualizing, and explaining the Confederate statues and their history would convert those artworks into tools of historical witness to wrongs done and too long tolerated. And they would serve as conspicuous examples of how to change moral direction within our society.