Montana Viewpoint: Statues for the other side of history

Jim Elliott

With the furor over the presence of memorials to Confederate soldiers it looks like there isn’t a statue in America safe from being torn down. It’s a tough question; there are some well-known historical figures who, along with the good that they did, also did something to affront a great many people.

Statues of Robert E. Lee should come down, some say, because he was a slaveowner who fought to preserve slavery in the South. But Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Patrick Henry were also slaveowners; what do you do about them? You can’t just erase them from the history of America.

What to do? The issue benefits no one in the long run; those who want the statues down will be angry if they are not removed, those who want them left in place will be angry if they are removed. What this nation absolutely does not need is more anger. I don’t think you can draw a line—a set of moral guidelines for statuary, if you will—that will please anybody, let alone everyone.

So, I make a modest proposal: instead of tearing down memorials that offend us, put up statues of other Americans who may be less well known but are no less important than those already memorialized. The point is to tell the other side of history; to put Lee, or Washington, or Jefferson and their deeds in perspective.

For instance, it seems appropriate to me that there should be more than the one monument in Boston to the first American to die in the Revolutionary War. Crispus Attucks was an African-American/Native-American free man who was killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. His weapon was a club, theirs, guns.

Or the Buffalo Soldiers; it wasn’t just Teddy Roosevelt who took Cuba’s San Juan Hill in the Spanish American war, the black troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry (who were stationed in Montana for several years) did the lion’s share of the fighting—and dying; and reached the summit first.

Of women, there are plenty of unsung leaders. Harriet Tubman, for one, was an African-American woman who ran a station on the Underground Railroad. She risked her life before and during the Civil War to help runaway slaves get to a Northern state where they would be free.

There are many Hispanic-American heroes, but the one that immediately jumps to my mind is a farm laborer named Cesar Chavez. He devoted his life to organizing farm workers in California to get better living conditions, higher wages, and a little more dignity.

Of Native Americans there is no lack of leaders who contributed to the fabric of our nation. They fought to protect their own people from the encroachment of American settlers who commandeered their land, but they fought for America, too. Men such as General Crook’s Apache Scouts of the 1870s, or the Navajo “Code Talkers” of WW II, who relayed secret messages in their native language, unintelligible to the Japanese. Or Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who was one of the five Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.

And I very much want to bring attention to the men of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service of World War II. American citizens of Japanese ancestry, born in America, they fought for a nation that had removed their families from their homes, taken their land, and put them in “Internment Camps” for the duration of the war. My friend, the late Lee Nakamura, of Trout Creek, was one of them.

But it’s not for me to choose, these are just illustrations of those who might qualify; the choice is for others of such groups or organizations who want America to honor their own.

There are plenty of stories that need to be told to an America that values courage and honor. There may be a better way to counter the errors of our past, but someone else will have to find it.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.