As Americans celebrate Black History Month, shrines to racists and racism are going the way of the Berlin Wall.
Yale University officials announced last week that they will rename Calhoun College, one of the institution's eight original residential colleges. It was named after former U.S. Vice President John Calhoun, an 1804 Yale graduate who defended slavery.
"At Harvard Law School, officials replaced a shield that was the family crest of slave owners. At the University of North Carolina, officials renamed a hall that had honored a leader of the Ku Klux Klan," explains a Washington Post article published in The Gazette.
"Colleges across the country — as well as other institutions, cities and legislative bodies — have wrestled with similar questions, as they consider monuments to the past in the context of modern life."
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions received intense scrutiny about his racial views in confirmation hearings this month.
In an interview with The Gazette's sister publication, The Weekly Standard, former Alabama District Attorney Chris Galanos explained how Sessions helped him indict three Ku Klux Klan members. Sessions was instrumental in helping him secure the death penalty for a Klansman who lynched and murdered a black man. Sessions is also credited for his work in desegregation lawsuits.
Still, Sessions was barely confirmed because he long ago referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union as "un-American" and "communist-inspired." Sessions said he criticized them for supporting Nicaragua's communist Sandinista National Liberation Front in the 1970s.
Our country cannot eliminate racism while empowering or celebrating those who promoted it, which leads to extreme vetting of red flags from the past.
Which leads us to the disgraceful legacy of former Klansman and U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, whose name adorns at least 55 buildings and public works projects. The Wikipedia entry "Places named after Robert Byrd" documents 31 academic institutions; four commerce and community centers; two government office buildings; two health care institutions; three recreation centers; seven highways and interchanges; two bridges; one transportation center; a dam; and two federal courthouses.
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe decried in 2015 that almost nothing carried the name of iconic U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy a full six years after his death. Kennedy's credentials as a civil rights warrior have never been questioned.
Senate Democrats almost stopped the confirmation of Sessions, who helped execute a Klansman, because he long ago criticized the NAACP. Yet, many of the same politicians elevated Byrd as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
When Byrd died in 2010, just more than six years ago, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lauded him as a hero so great his service could never be matched. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him a "friend and mentor."
Byrd was not just a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He founded its chapter in Sophia, W.Va., and was a member into his 30s. Byrd recruited 150 members who unanimously elected him to the top rank of "Exalted Cyclops." He later lamented his Klan leadership as an "albatross around my neck" because it harmed him politically.
As recently as 2001, Byrd repeated the N-word on national TV. In his 2005 memoir, Byrd described the KKK as a fraternal assembly of "upstanding people." Byrd voted against African-American Supreme Court nominees Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. He filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When pressure mounted to integrate the military in the mid-1940s, Byrd wrote he would never fight "with a negro by my side. Rather, I should die 1,000 times than to see this beloved land become degraded by race mongrels."
Byrd may have the most blatantly racist background of any politician of modern times, yet few politicians are more honored in the public sphere. While we scour from public the names of racists who lived centuries ago, no one questions the way we honor Byrd — a contemporary and recent friend of powerful politicians.
We are making strides in eradicating shrines to racists and racism. Maybe it's time we think about those federal courthouses and other public assets that honor a man whose recent past so intractably symbolizes hate.
The Gazette editorial board