Never stop in the push for freedom

by Jason Hendren ([email protected]) 1,423 views 

The All Saints Episcopal Church in Bentonville recently hosted the inaugural Harriet Tubman Memorial Tribute and Trailblazer Awards. A local organization called “The Shame of Bentonville” organized the event, as part of its informal, nonpartisan efforts to advocate for the relocation of the Confederal Monument in the Bentonville Square to a more suitable location where it can be studied in proper historical context.

The honorees included Maddison Booker, a student at Northwest Arkansas Community College and founder and President of the NWACC Young Democrats; Rohan Collins, a Freshman at Bentonville West High School who aspires to be a civil rights lawyer someday; Alice Gachuzo, the founder of the Springdale, Arkansas Martin Luther King Day program and 2019 recipient of the Friends of Springdale Schools Award; and me.

Harriet Tubman was, and remains, an American hero. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that slaves who escaped to northern, free states had to be returned to their masters. It also required that officials and citizens of free states cooperate with such efforts. Tubman fought against that unjust law, via the “underground railroad,” and did so at great risk. To have been caught helping fugitive slaves likely would have meant her death, as well as the re-enslavement (if not death) of those she sought to free. She did this not just for herself and her family, but for strangers caught in the maelstrom of slavery – in a country awash in racism, sexism, unfairness, cruelty and injustice. She once famously said: “Don’t ever stop! Keep going! If you want a taste of freedom, keep going!”

That is exactly what she did. That is exactly what we, as a community, must do now. We face challenges today that have confronted this land since 1619. They seem more intense lately, and more nationwide in scope than at any other time since the Civil War. I believe that is because we are now finally talking about our shared history – with everyone having a voice. Far from “erasing” history, we continue to uncover it, and to shed the light of truth upon it.

Often, we do not like what we see. Some of our “history” turns out to have been different than we thought. We have come to realize, more and more, that the noble principle espoused by our founding fathers – “that all men are created equal” – really meant “all men – like us.”Up until recently, I thought most people understood the outcome of the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement a century later, rendered that “like us” qualification invalid.

Then came August 2017, and the death of Heather Heyer (May 29, 1985 – August 12, 2017), in Charlottesville, Va. Protests there began following a dispute over the possible removal of public statues honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. What I saw on the television during those protests were the “like us” folks. They personified the insidious evil of the “Lost Cause” myth, and the false narrative of “white supremacy.” They wrapped these ideas in sentimental veils of “nostalgia” and “heritage” coopted from the Civil War. Similar protests occurred around the country, especially in southern states. They showed clearly that many people in our communities felt that not all men are created equal.

This caused me to reevaluate the Bentonville Confederate Monument. I had always considered it to be a benign observance honoring locals – like my grandfathers – who fought for the Confederacy. However, I learned the Civil War memorials had been placed on the battlefields and in cemeteries during the 1870s and 1880s. The Bentonville statue had been placed decades later, in 1908, as part of a coordinated effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to re-establish white supremacy in the “Jim Crow” era (ca. 1890 – 1920). Ours was one of many statues, all similar in appearance, placed in Arkansas and across the south during that “separate but equal” time period.

Unlike the earlier battlefield and funerial memorials, these statues were placed in close proximity to governmental institutions and community hubs – like courthouse lawns and public squares. Such strategic placement fostered the impression that the local power structure officially supported the Confederates and their lost cause. A popular myth, recently debunked by his own great-grandson, suggested that the Bentonville statue was of James Berry, who lived in Bentonville when elected governor of Arkansas in 1882. Berry helped pay for the statue, and locals placed a small plaque upon it in his honor following his death in 1913, but it is not a statue of him. Another popular myth, also debunked, is that the UDC or some descendent group “owns” the statue, and thus controls its destiny. Public records confirm that Benton County owns the statue, so if the UDC or some other private entity claims ownership of it, they owe Benton County more than a century’s worth of property taxes.

These realizations made me question the location of the Bentonville Confederate Monument, and whether it should remain in the center of our community. It will always be part of our heritage and history, but mainly as a cautionary tale of how history – if not handled carefully – can be twisted and used as a weapon of hatred and oppression, instead of as a catalyst for learning.

It saddened me to think of Arthur “Rabbit” Dickerson” (1896 – 1978), who I had the privilege of meeting when I was a young boy and who is honored with his own plaque just off the square in Bentonville for his highly respected career as a local businessman, having to walk by that statue most of his life. It is difficult to imagine what feelings he and his family (some of whom had been slaves) experienced as that statue gazed down upon them. They knew they might still be enslaved “property” if the Confederates being honored had prevailed. I did not want anyone to ever feel again what Mr. Dickerson and his family – and all people of color – must have felt, and still feel, under the shadow of that statue.

Our public spaces should be welcoming and inclusive to everyone. Wrongs, when realized, should be put right. That is why the statue should be moved elsewhere, in my opinion. The Pea Ridge National Military Park does not want it – since it is a Jim Crow statue. Ideally, it needs to be in a museum space, dedicated to the study of the Jim Crow era and how it affected all races in Benton County.

My Harriet Tubman Trailblazer Award came to me, as I understand it, because I took to social media and gave speeches regarding the statue and its historical context – and my view that it should be moved but not destroyed or hidden. This resulted in positive – and negative – comments directed toward me personally, and toward the subject matter generally. At one point a friend asked me why I wanted to fight this particular battle, since I am not black. In recounting this story to those assembled at the awards ceremony, I spoke directly to young Rohan Collins, the Bentonville West High School freshmen who wants to be a civil rights lawyer, and said: “Rohan, the most important fight some of us will ever have will be for others.”

Those willing to fight for others, like our imperfect founding fathers and like Harriet Tubman herself, embody what the true principles of this country really mean. All men and women are created equal, and should be treated justly, with fairness and respect.

That is freedom. I will keep fighting for that freedom; I won’t ever stop. If you want a taste of that freedom – for you and your children, and for all of us and all of our children – then don’t ever stop. Keep going!

Editor’s note: Jason Hendren is an attorney with Wright Lindsey & Jennings. The opinions expressed are those of the author.