This article, “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women” by Brent Staples, discusses racism among the heroes of women’s rights in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This is an important story for one reason. We live in a time of destroying reputations. We routinely condemn and judge historical heroes by the values of today and we also destroy public figures today by press reports of matters that have not been tried in the courts. Rapid social media storytelling creates swarms of indignation that are akin to a national borderline personality disorder, in which our love and admiration for a person, living or dead, turns rapidly to disgust and hatred. I don’t admire this quality of the present. It reminds me of McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have been taken down a notch because of their racist views and actions. I don’t think that attitude helps us become less racist today. All it does is diminish the great achievements that deserve to be honored, regardless of the moral flaws of the men who performed them. That is not to say we shouldn’t study and remember their racism. Nor should we neglect to tell stories that have not been told. Indeed, I recently blogged about a Boston trip in which I learned that Massachusetts killed a Catholic for being a witch. But I also mentioned that I visited the Museum of the Battle of Bunker Hill. There I learned that 150 Blacks and Indians fought for the Patriots during that Battle. Historians should provide us with context. It helps us remember who we are, and provide nuance and complexity to simple stories.
But context should not result in snap judgments. I find it sad but not surprising that leaders of women’s suffrage were racist. But that is not a reason to stop celebrating their achievements for women. We are all products of our times, and few of us are leaders at all. Those who were leaders in their times in one respect were not prophets and morally ahead of the times in every respect. It is silly and child-like to imagine they were.
But we all can know that history will judge us harshly, and we must walk with humility. Hatred and fear do not produce social progress. It produces more hatred and ultimately violence. The public discourse today is foul. Remember the lessons of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Speak out, but speak out with love and decency and firmness, not with hatred and contempt for our fellow humans.