Putting our Heads Together

Putting our Heads Together
I don't think he sees me

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Swords into Ploughshares

Photograph:“Swords into plowshares” is the biblical theme of a carving executed by Lee Lawrie above the entrance to the International Building, Rockefeller Center, New York City.
From my home on the plains that abut the Colorado Rockies where I have been since graduating Clemson University in 1985, my thoughts have often turned to the South in pride, longing, and sometimes despair and confusion. I have been following at a distance the controversy surrounding Tillman Hall. For the uninformed, Tillman Hall is the clock tower building which has been an enduring symbol of the campus since its construction in 1893. Back then (back in the day as it were), it was called Main Building or Old Building. In 1946 it was renamed Tillman Hall in honor of former South Carolina Governor and US Senator Benjamin Tillman. So far, so good – except not so much. Tillman was a racist of the first order and a man who would not only use politics against southern blacks, but quite often participated in violence and murder as well.
Politically, Tillman was notably responsible for implementing what essentially amounted to a literacy test on black voters. Socially, Tillman was frighteningly “hands-on.” He led lynch mobs and execution squads, taking pride in his deeds believing them righteous actions that “…involved everything we hold dear, Anglo-Saxon civilization included.”
It is clear that the Board of Regents for the University at the time did not do their due diligence in reviewing Tillman’s legacy as worthy of honor, or perhaps they engaged in willful and naked disregard of that legacy. The record does not show, and so either way Tillman Hall has existed on campus for 68 years.
I could have expounded in much greater detail Tillman’s offenses in the name of supremely flawed ideals and hatred, but they are easy enough to find online or in history books now, and my point regarding his name on a treasured landmark has been made. Knowing all this now, I am in favor of renaming Tillman Hall. I would be happy for the sake of historical continuity if it went back to being Main Hall. But this whole furor troubles me on another level that places me among those that could live with Tillman Hall remaining Tillman Hall.
I worked hard for four and half years to earn my four year Mechanical Engineering degree from Clemson University. For all of that time and all the time in the almost 30 years since my graduation (until the current controversy arose) I did not even once stop to consider who Tillman was. Tillman to me was a beautiful building of red brick, classic architecture, and a big clock, not a former Governor and Senator. I am sure I am not in the minority in this. Just as I am sure innumerable other institutions and municipalities across this nation have buildings bearing the names of people with skeletons in their closets (or openly sitting on their sofas) without most people even realizing it. In that sense, the names of segregationists, white supremacists, philanderers, wife beaters, cheaters, and all manner of shady human beings have been stripped of their original meaning and association, and been repurposed as names of steel and stone structures that benefit people, that mean something positive to people. Those bloody swords have already been beaten to ploughshares.
The greater lessons of the past are with us, the greater sins of the past are still borne by us. Is it truly beneficial to investigate the trees when we know the forest so well? Right now racial tension in the US is higher than I have ever seen it in my adult life. In the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent gender discrimination is measured by the ever rising number of mutilated and murdered women and girls. Around the globe sweat shops enslave children and adults alike to service the insatiable appetite of the economic/industrial beast. Reviving old grudges serves no purpose other than making old wounds raw, and does not directly address the tensions and inequalities that still threaten to drown society today. Change the name of Tillman Hall now that particular Pandora’s Box has been opened. Move on to something greater. Nobody is counting brownie points earned from unearthing the dead who long ago lost their fight.