Learning from the past

Learning from the past

August 20th, 2012 in Opinion Times

William Faulkner famously wrote that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Those plaintive words were written decades ago to help explain the way in which history seemed to haunt Southerners of the time. It still does. Two events -- one at the University of Georgia, another on a Civil War battlefield in Maryland -- are testament to most Southerners' commendable effort to reconcile unpleasant aspects of the region's past with more progressive views of race and history in the present.

The first, in Athens, marked the 50th anniversary of the university's first black graduate. The second, at Antietam National Battlefield, was the site of the dedication of a granite marker commemorating a Mississippi Infantry unit that fought there in the Civil War. Each provided a clear-eyed and not always pleasant account of what transpired in the past. They also afforded welcome updates of the social, civic, political and personal advances made by individuals and groups directly affected by long-ago events.

Mary Frances Early received her master's degree on Aug. 16, 1962. Hers was not an easy road. Other students called her foul names and threw rocks at her as she traversed the campus. She was socially and emotionally isolated, but persevered, a pioneer whose grit ultimately helped change the way the university, its patrons and many residents across the state viewed the racial divide.

Early remembered the terrors of past but preferred to dwell on the present, saying that "The inclusion of African-American students at the university [of Georgia] has truly enriched our university." The word "our" illustrates just how far the university and Georgians of all races and creeds have come since 1962.

The Antietam marker commemorates the service of the 11th Mississippi Infantry, which had about 1,000 soldiers, including a unit from the University of Mississippi known as the University Greys, More than 10 percent of the infantry was killed, wounded or missing by the battle's end. The state wanted to honor the infantry's service and valor, but doing so posed problems for many present-day Mississippians, whose state flag is the last to include the Confederacy's battle emblem. They did not want to raise painful reminders of the past for fellow citizens.

It is difficult, they say, to balance the truth that slavery was indefensible with a desire to honor the service and valor of those who fought for what was, to them, an honorable cause. The state is making an effort to do so. There will be re-enactments of Civil War events, but also reminders that many black Mississippians fought for their own freedom and that the state now has hundreds of black public officials.

Faulkner was right. The past still haunts Southerners, but many, fortunately, have chosen to use what transpired in the past to inspire acts and events that continue to build a more inclusive and open society today. That is a history lesson well worth the learning.