Toward the end of the movie Oppenheimer, President Harry S. Truman accuses the title character of being a “cry baby scientist.” The comment, true to history though it was said privately to staff, so completely diminishes the brilliant physicist’s anguish over the detonation of the first atomic bombs that he helped create.
If that’s all the viewer knows of that president, one would think Truman a small man who lacked empathy for Oppenheimer and the more than 214,000 people who died from the blasts by 1945. Yet Truman was anything but; he oversaw the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. When viewed in the context of their life and times, it is clear that both men’s contributions to history were far greater than their failings. A single moment does not a person define.
The Denver Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which just renamed Mt. Evans to Mt. Blue Sky, must keep this principle in mind as they embark on a process to consider names.
The Denver agency will consider whether to rename six Denver parks including Jefferson Park, La Alma-Lincoln Park, and Jefferson Square Park. The HRCP was tasked by the former mayor to scrutinize the names of parks and monuments to determine whether any had “complex histories related to any racial groups or ideologies.” Those whose names honor city property were judged as to whether their behavior “harmed members of the City and County of Denver” or violated its values of inclusion and diversity, and whether their name glorified and perpetuated discriminatory practices against the “historically oppressed.”
In the discussion to remove Lincoln’s name, the committee described the 16th president as having “steered the Union through the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation…[and] authorized the execution of 38 Dakota men and commuted the death sentences of more than 260 others as the result of a deeply flawed trial of the tribal combatants in the aftermath of the 1862 US-Dakota War.” This characterization diminishes the president’s role in the former and distorts his role in the latter.
Lincoln was not perfect nor did he act alone in saving the union and ending chattel slavery but he was an indispensable man in that struggle. Read the just-published And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle by Jon Meacham, though any biographer will concur. They will also criticize the committee’s assessment of Lincoln’s actions toward the Dakota.
In 1862, driven by desperation and starvation on the reservation, Dakota warriors attacked and killed hundreds of settler families. US soldiers joined the fight and in the end, 600 white and mixed-race citizens and 100 Dakota soldiers lay dead. Even though it would have been politically advantageous to sign off on the mass execution of the convicted Indian warriors, Lincoln authorized capital punishment only for those who were found guilty of rape or civilian massacre.
As for President Jefferson, his name was recommended for elimination because he owned slaves and initiated the removal of Native Americans. These were indeed immoral and hypocritical acts given his understanding of human equality. Jefferson is worthy of harsh judgment. He was wrong yet that is not all he was.
Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, a creedal document that eloquently describes the equality of all people, natural rights, and the responsibility of our government to guarantee them. These words were not only essential in justifying the break with Great Britain, they were essential to the founding of America, the crafting of the Constitution, and successful efforts to eliminate slavery and assert equal rights for all Americans.
Lincoln and Jefferson deserve to be honored for their momentous contributions to US history and the ongoing pursuit of equal rights for all people especially the oppressed.
Perfection cannot be the standard for these committees considering striping our city’s and state’s monuments and mountains of their historic names, otherwise, none will remain. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the nation’s war effort against the Nazis, interned innocent Japanese Americans. The greatest leader of the Civil Rights Era, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the president who proposed the Civil Rights Act, John F. Kennedy, were serial philanderers. Nelson Mandela who played a pivotal role in abolishing apartheid in South Africa was once a member of the Communist Party. Like Jefferson and Lincoln, their achievements far outweigh their missteps and they merit public recognition.
In the weighing of deeds, the scale tips the other way at times. The removal of Confederate monuments is appropriate because however brave or tactically brilliant the military men were on the battlefield, the cause for which they fought was evil, and their contribution to human history was negative. Read the casus belli (statements of war) written by the states upon secession; the South went to war for no other reason than to protect the institution of slavery. Their role can be acknowledged in museums but should not be honored in parks or streets.
Between Lincoln and Lee lies a difficult grey area.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted to change the name of Mount Evans to Mount Blue Sky, but the decision was not without controversy. While the mountain’s namesake, Colorado Gov. John Evans, did not plan or directly participate in the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyanne and Arapaho families in the eastern part of the territory, he failed as superintendent of Indian Affairs for the region to prevent it, refused any responsibility for it, and was indifferent to the suffering of the victims.
The agency’s Naming Advisory Board recommended the change with support from the Southern Cheyanne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. The Northern Cheyenne of Lame Deer, Montana, however, object because the phrase ‘blue sky’ is sacred to one of their ceremonies, and casual use would be sacrilegious.
A new name no longer bears the shame of Evans’s moral failure but carries with it new burdens.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer