Prince George's shows how to dump bigots

WILEY A. HALL

March 09, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Last week, the Prince George's County School Board voted unanimously to change the name of an Upper Marlboro middle school so that it honors the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall rather than Roger Brooke Taney, the chief justice of the United States during the mid-1800s.

And when the last vote was recorded Thursday, the sky did not fall. The earth did not shake. Maryland's hallowed ancestors did not rise up from their graves to howl and protest the board's action.

In fact, the board received a standing ovation from citizens who attended the meeting. And after the vote, the board even briefly adjourned to celebrate its action with punch and cookies.

This is how cultural diversity ought to be achieved -- quick, painless and by unanimous consent; occasioning celebration rather than recrimination. The rest of Maryland has a lot to learn.

Roger Brooke Taney was chief justice of the United States during the period leading up to the Civil War. In 1857, Taney wrote the Dred Scott decision in which he argued that since blacks were a "degraded" and "inferior race," despised throughout history by the "civilised and enlightened portions of the world," they were "doomed" to a life of slavery for their own good. Blacks, ruled Taney, have no constitutional rights "which the white man was bound to respect."

Thirty years later, Baltimore erected a statue in Taney's honor, a replica of which sits in front of the State House in Annapolis.

The historical evidence suggests that the former chief justice was honored specifically because of the Dred Scott decision, not in spite of it.

When I wrote last month that we ought to consider removing the Taney statues, people sprang to his defense.

"Roger Brooke Taney was by every measure one of the most outstanding Americans of the 19th century," wrote Elliott Cummings, who described himself as a distant cousin of the chief justice. "For this reason an earlier generation of Marylanders believed that it was appropriate to honor and remember him with not one, but two monuments. . . . It is not up to Hall or anyone else to question those decisions."

Kenneth E. Clark of Ellicott City suggested racial harmony would best be served if we added a statue of Frederick Douglass, standing next to Taney with "his arm draped over the justice's shoulder in a brotherly manner."

And Del. David R. Craig, R-Harford, wrote that as both a student and a teacher of history "I find it disturbing that one generation should sit in judgment of a past generation. . . . How much better would it be not to tear down, but to build up?"

Toward this end, Delegate Craig said he would support a proposal to add a statue of Thurgood Marshall on the State House grounds.

Other writers noted that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves and that even Abraham Lincoln characterized blacks in a way that would not be "politically correct" today.

In short, the consensus seemed to be that racial harmony would be best served if the Taney statues remained.

Well, I disagree. I prefer the approach taken in Prince George's.

Most legal scholars consider the Dred Scott decision a mistake, not only by today's standards but by 19th century standards as well. It was not ignorance but bigotry that led Taney to write that blacks were degraded and inferior and universally despised. It was a deliberate and malicious misreading of history, of the intent of the Founding Fathers, and of the capabilities of those of African descent.

I believe this generation can and should sit in judgment of the bigotry of our ancestors. If we do not dare to judge the past, how can we learn from it? I believe harmony is best served by truth.

Finally, I acknowledge that Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were products of their times and, thus, would not be "politically correct" today. I agree that historical figures ought to be judged within the context of their times and places.

But even in the fierce heat of battle, there are people who go too far. We call those people "war criminals." We do not erect statues in their honor.

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