Recent removal and destruction of statues and monuments around the country have caused us to consider exactly what we intend when we remember leaders in such ways. Attacks on the statues of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass, not to mention those erected to remember anyone connected the Civil War, cause us to take a deeper look and ask more questions about all these men.
We have learned that none of those memorialized had perfect records. A number of our founding fathers owned slaves and profited from their labor. Others oversaw organizations that did not honor the worth of all people, others acted too slowly to reject actions and institutions of bigotry (and others apparently come down for no real reason whatsoever). When these deeds are realized and publicized, then statues come down and street and organizational names are changed, But in reality we already knew these things. We have known for a long time that the men were not perfect and that the monuments were not erected for perfection.
If perfection were required, we would have no heroes, no honorees, no statues and no memorials. Instead, I think the statues and memorials commemorate moments when men rose in honor, faith, and patriotism, sometimes are great peril, for a noble cause. The statues honor those moments, not the full measure of lives.
At the death of Kobe Bryant, when some insisted on writing of Bryant’s frailties, Peggy Noonan wrote that we should not remember someone for the worst thing he/she ever did. I think the statues and memorials remember people for the best thing they ever did. And perhaps they can inspire us to do the same.
Sam R. Matthews