New Jersey U.S. Senator Cory Booker has sponsored legislation to remove statues of Confederate soldiers from the U.S. Capitol. He should be applauded for attempting to eliminate from national public view such obscene and offensive symbols of bigotry, white supremacy, slavery, and the Jim Crow era.
Yet if this legislation is passed, Booker will have accomplished something even more significant. He will have gone a long way towards ending the racist distortion of the history of the Confederacy and the Reconstruction era resulting largely from the efforts of a New Jersey native, William Archibald Dunning (1857-1922), professor of history at Columbia University.
New Jersey’s leading presidential historian-in-residence, Alvin S.Felzenberg writes at length about Dunning and his followers, known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction in his landmark book, The Leaders We Deserved, and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. Pre-Civil War African-American slavery constitutes nothing less than the shame and disgrace of American history. The Jim Crow era in the South, which began to emerge at the end of Reconstruction in 1877, was characterized by racial segregation and deprivation of civil and human rights of African-Americans. Jim Crow was a new regimen intended to continue the white supremacist principle that was the rationale for antebellum African-American enslavement.
Dunning painted a distorted portrait of Jim Crow as an attempt to restore Southern white “liberties” from Northern oppression. He characterized the Southern white ruling class as benevolent individuals who justifiably deprived genetically inferior African-Americans of basic civil and human rights. President Andrew Johnson, who resisted efforts of Republicans to provide such liberties to Southern blacks, was portrayed by the Dunning School as a hero.
The Dunning School had a profound impact on prevailing trends in American historiography all the way up through the early 1960s. President Woodrow Wilson, a virulently anti-Black racist to the core, was a follower of the Dunning School. Even John F. Kennedy, although himself not a racist, was influenced by the Dunning School when he glorified as heroes in his book, Profiles in Courage, Kansas Senator Edmund Ross, who voted against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and Lucius Lamar, a racist Mississippi Senator who became a Supreme Court Justice.
In their efforts to legitimize and indeed glorify Jim Crow, the Dunning School received assistance from two sources. The first was the publication of fictionalized portraits of postbellum Southern life which portrayed African-Americans as happy and content with their lot under Jim Crow. The most prominent was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The second source was the mass movement, particularly in the early 20th century, to erect throughout the South statues of Confederate soldiers, particularly generals.
Confederate soldiers were not heroes. They were individuals who committed treason against the United States of America and fought for the survival of the Confederate States of America, a regime founded on white supremacy and the continuation of slavery. The glorification of these white supremacist rebels is an affront to the very basic American ideals of freedom, equality, and the elimination of racial and ethnic discrimination.
The Dunning School has now been thoroughly discredited. If a person wants to study the horrific truth about Jim Crow, he or she should begin by reading the landmark book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow by the late Yale Professor C. Vann Woodward.
Opponents of the Booker bill, including President Donald Trump, assert the sophistic argument that these Confederate statues are reflective of our history and therefore should not be removed. Yes, they are reflective of American history – a shameful, disgraceful part. Statues should be built to glorify those individuals who reflect American ideals and therefore are a justifiable source of pride. They should not be erected to honor those who are a source of American shame, like the Confederacy. These Confederate statues should be removed from all public places.
Donald Trump speaks mournfully of the removal of our “beautiful Confederate statues.” This is not surprising given his bigotry, which is beyond doubt after his behavior regarding Charlottesville and his despicable and corrupt pardon of Joe Arpaio. Indeed, Republican Donald Trump is the most bigoted president since Democrat Woodrow Wilson, proving that bigotry is bipartisan. Aside from reflecting his bigotry, Donald Trump’s passionate advocacy of the Confederate statues also reflect his ignorance of history.
If Donald Trump wants to learn how societies properly deal with statues that reflect a national disgrace, he need not look any further than postwar Germany. Nazism was the German national shame and disgrace, just as African-American slavery is our national shame and disgrace. After the Second World War, in both East and West Germany, statues of Nazis were removed from all public places.
This stands in contrast to what is happening now in Russia. Donald Trump’s authoritarian friend, Vladimir Putin, is Russia’s version of William Archibald Dunning. He is encouraging the erection of NEW statues of one of history’s most evil mass murderers, Joseph Stalin, throughout Russia in order to legitimize the dictatorial nature of the Putin regime.
If Donald Trump wants to learn how the erection of a statue can be a source of pride in American ideals, he need look no further than the role played by his newly appointed Ambassador to Italy, Lew Eisenberg, in the erection of a statue of Jackie Robinson in Jersey City.
It is a source of great pride to New Jersey that Jackie Roosevelt Robinson integrated Organized Baseball as a player on the Montreal Royals in a game against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City on April 18, 1946. While serving as Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Lew honored the 50th anniversary of this occasion by the erection of a statue of Jackie at the PATH Terminal in Jersey City.
It was no surprise that Lew did this. His entire career in both the public and private sector has been characterized by his efforts to end racial and ethnic discrimination and provide opportunity for all.
If the Booker bill passes, Americans will be encouraged to erect more statues of people like Jackie Robinson and remove those of Confederate slave traders and Ku Klux Klan members like General Nathan Forrest Bedford. And thanks to Cory Booker, integrity will continue to be restored to American history.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.