Remembering or Honoring?

The Citizens to Save Our Parks and other groups that want to retain Memphis park names that honor the Confederacy often accuse those of us who favor renaming the parks of wanting to “change history.” That approach has actually worked well for them to some extent, because it changes the debate from one of offending African-Americans and progressive whites to one of what constitutes history, which is after all the past and which cannot be changed, since what happened is what happened.
However, their argument falls flat when subjected to close scrutiny. There is a difference between commemoration and honoring. Many park names commemorate historic events which occurred on or near their location, and no one ever suggests renaming them. This would include places like Shiloh National Battlefield, Vicksburg National Military Park, Columbus-Belmont State Park or Fort Pillow State Park. These parks are places where history occurred, and having a park there commemorates the events that occurred, without supporting one side or the other.
The Memphis parks, by contrast, with one exception, are not the locations of history. No momentous battles occurred on the site of Forrest Park or Confederate Park. The part of the old Public Promenade that was renamed for former Confederate president Jefferson Davis was the site of a brief and unglorious battle in which the Confederates in the park were no match for Union gunboats from the Mississippi River. Such was the “Battle of Memphis.” But the park’s name does not commemorate the battle per se, which, of course, Jefferson Davis was not present at, and which he had little to do with.
Memphis’ park names were rather chosen to honor the Confederacy itself, and those who served its cause. In that regard, Memphis around the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th differed little from other places in the South. The triumph of Jim Crow segregation and the election of Southern Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the White House seemed to unleash a new round of pro-Confederate sentiment in the South, an era that culminated in the release of the pro-Ku-Klux-Klan movie Birth Of A Nation. In choosing to name parks “Confederate”, “Jefferson Davis” and “Nathan Bedford Forrest”, Memphians of the early 20th Century were expressing their approval of what the Confederacy stood for and the men who fought for it, not merely neutrally remembering the past. It is this reason that these parks are so offensive to the African-American community.
New Orleans had a similar park, commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place, in which a paramilitary terrorist group called the White League successfully defeated the Metropolitan Police and overthrew the duly elected government of the state of Louisiana to re-establish white supremacy. The controversial monument praised white supremacy and was eventually removed after years of complaints.
Nobody can change history. What happened in the past happened. But when parks are arbitrarily named to honor the Confederacy and Confederate leaders, despite the fact that no historic event occurred on those grounds to justify the name, we are left with the conclusion that the names were chosen not to commemorate but to show community approval of that cause. Here in 2013, the Confederacy is no longer a cause that a majority of Memphians approve of, nor should they. Therefore, the names should be changed.

Looking Up Clarksdale’s Martin Luther King Street (old Fourth Street) #jukejointfest

154 MLK (Old Fourth Street) Sometime in the last five to ten years, Clarksdale renamed Fourth Street for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and while Dr. King is certainly deserving, it is odd to me that city officials chose to rename the street for him and not for the local civil rights leader Aaron Henry, whose pharmacy sat on the street well into the 1980’s. At any rate, the street was for many years the epicenter of Clarksdale’s Black business district, with restaurants, funeral homes, churches and night clubs. Red’s sits on the corner of MLK and Sunflower, and Messenger’s Pool Hall (another popular juke joint venue) sits directly on MLK. One wonders what Mr. Henry would think of Juke Joint Festival (or modern Clarksdale, for that matter) were he still alive.

MonkeyWrench Books (@MonkeyWrenchATX) in Austin’s North Loop

#008 Monkeywrench Books MonkeyWrench Books is a collective that runs a left-wing bookstore in Austin’s ultra-hip North Loop neighborhood (Well, really, what Austin neighborhood ISN’T ultra-hip?). The average conservative will hate this place, but there are plenty of books on African-American and Hispanic struggle, workers’ struggles, anarchism, socialism, communism and environmentalism. Many of the books I saw here I have not seen elsewhere. They are open from 11-8 weekdays and from 12-8 on weekends at 110 E North Loop. You can call them at (512) 407-6925.

The area east of the Jackson State University campus along J.R. Lynch Street is being restored as a historic district. These blocks were the center of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, and they include the Masonic Temple, where many civil rights meetings were held, and the headquarters of the Council of Federated Organizations or COFO, which was the statewide group coordinating all civil rights activity in the state. 

More thoughts on open public accomodations

After my recent post on Ron Paul and his advocacy for repeal of the Civil Rights Act, I was asked by someone if a Black man should be forced to serve a Neo-Nazi or Klan member in his place of business. It never ceases to amaze me how the libertarians always couch their questions in these terms, as if they have failed to notice that there just aren’t all that many Black-owned businesses these days. What they do know is that the question framed in those terms won’t be as offensive as the opposite, which nevertheless would also be true. In other words, when they ask whether a Black man should have to welcome KKK members or Neo-Nazi members into his business, they are also asking whether a white business owner should have to welcome Blacks, or at the very least perhaps New Black Panther Party members.

Of course, the short answer is, for the most part yes. You can’t generally tell who is a member of these organizations from looking at them, and if they come into a place of business, behaving normally, and ask for service, they should be served. Now if a man came into a business with Klan robes on, or with a swastika on his shirt, I could see a business owner saying “You can’t come in here like that. You will cause a disturbance in my place of business.” But understand that the prohibition is not racially based. Nothing would stop the man from going home, changing into ordinary clothes, and coming back to be served. 

Nobody is arguing that business owners do not have the right to set codes of conduct and even reasonable dress codes for patrons. The argument is whether business owners should be allowed to prohibit customers on the basis of things that the customer cannot change (race, height, eye-color, weight, national origin, religion or native language). I think common sense tells us that businesses should not be allowed to do these things. I will agree with the libertarians that business owners have rights. But so do individuals. And the role of government is to mediate the disputes that result when one’s exercise of his rights infringes upon another person’s rights. That is not an “unconstitutional power grab” on the part of government. It is rather government doing what it is designed to do. We are all better off when businesses that are open to the public are open to ALL the public.

Some Background on What Happened to Earle, Arkansas

After blogging on the near-ghost-town status of Earle, Arkansas a few days ago, I did some digging online and came upon this old Federal court decision that gives some interesting details about how bad things got in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Earle during the civil rights movement. It doesn’t seem that Earle was particularly eager to join the modern era. 

Some Background on What Happened to Earle, Arkansas