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Tearing down Thomas Jefferson: Black leaders of past wouldn't agree with removing statue

Martin Luther King Jr. understood that the nation had fallen short. But the Declaration showed the way forward, for America and the world.

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 I hate to admit it, but it’s true: Donald Trump was right about the monuments.

 Not about monuments to Confederate traitors like Robert E. Lee, whom Trump labeled “a great general.” Nor was he correct in claiming that military bases named after Confederates were “part of a Great American heritage.”

But Trump was right that these attacks would morph into a broader campaign to pull down memorials to the Founders of America, not just to the Southerners who took up arms against it.

So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump mused in 2017, after white nationalists marched to defend a statue of him in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself where does it stop?”

 Alas, it doesn’t. Exactly as Trump predicted, New York officials voted last month to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the chambers of the City Council.

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“It makes me deeply uncomfortable knowing that we sit in the presence of a statue that pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed that people who look like me were inherently inferior,” said Councilmember Adrienne Adams, co-chair of the council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.

She's right about Jefferson, who enslaved more than 600 Black people and fathered at least six children by one of them. But African Americans across our past have also invoked him on behalf of their struggle for freedom, which almost nobody mentioned at the council meeting.

Even in a plea to respect Black sensitivities, ironically, the statue's critics ignored Black history.

Start with Frederick Douglass, America’s most renowned abolitionist. In his iconic 1852 Fourth of July address, Douglass acknowledged that the author of the Declaration of Independence did not apply its ringing affirmation of equality – all men are created equal – to enslaved African Americans. But Douglas nevertheless praised the declaration itself, which held the key to Black liberation.

 “The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles,” Douglass thundered. “Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

Likewise, W.E.B. Du Bois frequently quoted Jefferson in his demands for Black rights and dignity. Despite all of the injustices they faced, Du Bois wrote, African Americans remained deeply committed to Jefferson’s egalitarian ideals; indeed, they could not critique their oppression without those ideals.

“We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed,” Du Bois wrote in his classic 1903 treatise, "The Souls of Black Folk." “There are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes.”

The best known invocation of Jefferson belongs to Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted the declaration at the March on Washington in 1963: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' "  

Like Douglass and Du Bois before him, King understood that the nation had fallen short on that pledge, but that the declaration showed the way forward, for America and the world.

King praised the Declaration of Independence

Two years later, speaking from his pulpit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King expanded on the same theme. “Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality,” King declared, praising the declaration.

Indeed, he concluded, “every man” – and, we’d add today, every woman – “is an heir of the legacy” of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson did not live by his own principles, as critics of his New York statue correctly noted. Even so, he remains our preeminent symbol of them, which is how he differs from Robert E. Lee and other Confederates.

Black Americans never celebrated Lee, who led the military campaign to continue their oppression. But they did embrace Jefferson, whose words inspired their own struggles against it. 

Trump leverages controversy

And ignoring that distinction plays right into the hands of Donald Trump, of course. In a tweet last month denouncing the decision to remove Jefferson's statue, Trump called him “a principal writer of the Constitution.” Twitterverse exploded in mirth, noting that Jefferson was actually in France when the Constitution was drafted.

But most commentators missed Trump’s closing boast: “Who would have thought this would ever be possible (I did and called it long ago!)” He did call it, and correctly at that.

The big question is why so many of his enemies are trying to prove him right, and what history will call them for denigrating the legacy of the freedom fighters who summoned Thomas Jefferson. 

You really have to ask yourself, where does it stop? Douglass, Du Bois and King would all have wanted Jefferson's statue to stay. We should listen to them.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn.” 

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