By Michael Willard
Donald Trump is George Wallace with a New York accent. It is doubtful that the President and the late Alabama governor will ever have statues dedicated to their memories.
If it ever happens, the ghost of Beetlejuice has taken over America. But this statue thing is complicated. It is awash in shades of gray.
Though an imaginary statue, I would never consider toppling my mind’s visage of my dad — gone now nearly a half-century — from my head or heart. I never considered him a racist, and yet he was a product of his Mississippi segregationist roots.
Once in my early teens, my mother had purchased an album with Black singer Ray Charles on the cover. My dad allowed the music, but not the picture of Charles. I was confused, and at 17 was conflicted myself, though my racial deliberations stopped at a musical water’s edge.
The fact was, I loved the great singers of color, Charles, Sam Cooke, The Coasters, The Platters, Johnny Mathis, and the Jamaican Harry Belafonte as much or more so than Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom sang a genre of black gospel, country, and rockabilly.
However, as a member of the high school debating club, I took the position as a states’ rights advocate when it came to racial issues, not realizing my jargon and stance represented a direct line from slavery. I was the product of my early upbringing.
That same year my father attended an athletic banquet and sat at the same table with my teammate Danny James’ father, Col. Daniel “Chappie” James. James was one of the original WWII Tuskegee Airmen and rose to become America’s first four-star Black general.
It was a pleasant evening with my father, a master sergeant, sitting across from and chatting with the man who outranked him multiple grades as an officer. I chatted with his son who was a heck of a lot better football player than I was. He also became a general.
Additionally, during that same timeframe, while living on a military base in England, my younger sister had her first African-American teacher and the woman was welcomed into our home.
Meanwhile, another seismic event was occurring stateside. James Meredith was the first Black student at the University of Mississippi, where my older brother was a student. The National Guard had to be called to quell campus disturbances.
Just a couple of years later, I attended a private junior college in Orlando.
My second year there was eventful for two reasons: I was named editor of the school newspaper, and mid-year I was asked to leave school because I wrote two articles urging the institution to allow Blacks to attend.
I said the school motto, “Teaching Christianity and American Democracy,” was hypocrisy. The school president pushed a piece of paper across his desk for me to sign. It said that I was voluntarily resigning from school. I refused. In a standoff, I won and finished the year.
It helped that a small neighborhood newspaper picked up my cause. The school was worried about the publicity.
A couple of years ago I was back on that same campus. The school by then was an expensive prep school. My teen daughter was participating in a swim competition with athletes of every shade. Times change.
When it comes to statues, I don’t give a fig, but I have African-American friends and I am with them on this. It seems any general who took up arms against our country doesn’t need a memorializing statue for pigeons to perch and poop — or a military base.
But, I also think we need to be excruciatingly careful in devaluing the lives of imperfect men of their times, such as our third President, Thomas Jefferson, a fellow for whom I carry no brief. Owning slaves was just one of his faults. Other than being a liberal, I am a Federalist.
That imaginary statue of my father remains. I honor it.
He was the same age as Gen. James and both died young, he at 53, James five years later, both of heart attacks. They were good and honest men.
I’d like to think, unlike his reaction to the singer Ray Charles, my dad would have welcomed my black son into his home if only he had lived long enough to meet him. I know he would.
My former boss, a U.S. Senate Leader, had been in the Ku Klux Klan. Long before he died, he had repudiated his early life and was an advocate for civil rights and gender equality. He was honored by the Rev. Martin Luther King’s family and icon John Lewis.
Statues, imaginary or otherwise, are symbols of the times, and rarely represent the total measure of men and women.
We fuel a cultural divide by dwelling on them when other issues loom like off-shore hurricanes sure to cause destruction.