Opinion: Add to, not subtract from, history

Honoring today’s heroes by obliterating unpleasant past doesn’t serve history, or society, well.


The skirmishes over brick, mortar and sculptures and the names, ideals, legend or fancy attached to them have descended upon two giants of the United States Senate.

The latest volley began when Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer proposed renaming the Richard B. Russell Senate Office Building in honor of the late Sen. John McCain.

That’s set off the predictable drawing of sides, even as Sen. Mitch McConnell is shrewdly using the old political gambit of stalling for time by suggesting a study of how best to honor the memory of McCain, who died last month.

To many, the choice seems an easy one: Who could reasonably object to whiting-out Russell’s name? After all, he was a bedrock segregationist best known today for his decades-long defense of white supremacy in the American South.

Chiseling in the name of war hero McCain in place of Russell’s might thus seem the easy, right call to make. After all, monuments to a racist past are being figuratively — and sometimes literally — toppled across the land.

Swapping-out now-unpopular names or spiriting away statues today seen as offensive does not well serve what should be a primary goal of history. And that is to learn, accept and remember clearly what has happened in the past. As importantly, bygone events should be thoughtfully, accurately and unflinchingly considered in the context of both yesterday and today. Doing so gives us the best chance of current actions being seen in a favorable light by future generations that will determine the right and wrong sides of history.

Today’s more-enlightened South and America should find it impossible to defend Russell’s doomed efforts to preserve a social order based in racial prejudice. And Russell’s considerable good works, such as his successful advocacy of a national school lunch program, should not be overlooked. All are facets of a complicated, powerful man’s legacy. We forget any of it at our peril.

D.C. lawmakers are no doubt dreading their future reckoning over the names Russell and McCain.

A couple of ideas may help them find a workable way forward. One was suggested in a letter to this newspaper urging simply that McCain’s name be added to Russell’s on the Senate building. An editorial by Bloomberg News suggests that names on public infrastructure be automatically reviewed every 50 years, which would allow for accommodating sentiments that evolve over time.

In any instance, Sen. McCain’s legacy of honorable, selfless service deserves prominent recognition. And reminders of this nation’s at-times unpleasant past should not be tossed into oblivion either. History demands better on both counts.


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