Rewriting History

Posted on May 26, 2019


Rewriting History

Rewriting history to suit yourself or your politics, your race or ethnic background, your religion or your anything else in your cultural or social baggage is not a new phenomenon. But we periodically need to reexamine ourselves to see if we are truly writing good history, or just arguing our points by dipping in here and there and selectively “writing” history by drawing only on the events of the past that suit us, or our sensibilities.

In the last century, communist regimes were past masters of retooling the past to suit their ideologies. The Soviets called it “socialist reality” to conform to communist ideology. If you wrote or didn’t remember the past like the Party required you to, you could spend the rest of your life exiled to Siberia in the Gulag Archipelago. Look up the life of Alexander Solzhenitzyn.

Wars and other conflicts are usually written by the winners, further skewering the truth. I’m not quite sure how it works, but today some historians are writing that we won the Vietnam War, rather than giving up the struggle in 1975 so dramatically portrayed by the iconic image of the last helicopter hovering over an apartment building in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) while people struggled to get aboard.

In the effort to get it right, PBS has initiated a new series entitled Retro devoted to examining the historical roots of modern problems. Or, as their ad put it, “How do today’s top stories relate to the past?” The problem is credibility, or historical accuracy. PBS will take “viewers on a journey into the most important stories of the day, looking at them through the lens of their often-surprising historical roots, providing new insights while correcting the record and exposing myths along the way.”

Some of the stories to be covered include how “Kaepernick’s bended knee during the national anthem was deeply rooted in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest, why the government spends nearly $50 million a year to care for approximately 100,000 wild horses thanks to an obscure law passed more than 50 years ago, and how the modern-day recycling movement was fueled by a news story about a barge full of garbage in the 1980s.”

Now, for a palimpsest. I know. I had no idea what a palimpsest was either until the term popped into my inbox from a friend at Vanderbilt who knew I was searching for something in antique documents.

Here’s what a palimpsest is: it comes from a Greek word that means scraped or rubbed again. The best way I can describe it is that ancient writings on parchment, or the skins of animals, were sometimes scrubbed clean and overwritten with a new text or narrative. We’re not exactly rewriting history here, just erasing some and substituting another.

Perhaps the most famous palimpsest is the Syriac Sinaitucus, a late 4th century manuscript containing a translation of the four Gospels into Syriac. These were overwritten by a biography of female saints and martyrs. So, there you go girls. @metoo has a longer history than you thought.

This palimpsest was found in the library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai in 1892. The palimpsest is still kept by the Monastery. It is one of the—if not the—oldest copies of the Gospels in Biblical Aramaic, one of three main languages of the region, along with Latin and Greek.

Finally, a little true history of that famous South Carolina racist and segregationist Strom Thurmond (1902-2003).

In 1942, although exempt because of his age and judgeship, he joined the army. At the Normandy Invasion in 1944, he landed in a glider with the 82nd Airborne Division and received 18 decorations during the war.

As governor (1946-1950), he intervened in the lynching and trial of Willie Earle in early 1947. Earle was accused of murdering a Greenville cab driver in Pickens County and he was dragged out of the jail and murdered by a mob. Governor Thurmond was determined to see that justice was done. His state police cooperated closely with the FBI and 31 were charged, and subsequently tried with a jury of 12 white men. The trial drew national attention, covered by reporters for The New Yorker and Life Magazine among others.

The jury deliberated for 5 hours and 13 minutes and returned a verdict of not guilty. The New York Times editorialized:

“There has been a victory for law, even though Willie Earle’s slayers will not be punished for what they did. A precedent has been set. Members of lynching mobs may now know that they do not bask in universal approval, even in their own disgraced communities, and they may begin to fear that someday, on sufficient evidence and with sufficient courage, a Southern lynching case jury will convict.”

In 1950 Fritz Hollings (later Governor and Senator) wrote an anti-lynching bill signed into law, specifying the death penalty for lynching. No further lynchings occurred in South Carolina.

We measure progress in small increments. History is complicated and not to everyone’s liking. But the truth is important. I’m reading a new book, Won Over, Reflections of a Federal Judge on His Journey from Jim Crow Mississippi. More later but pick it up if you want some insights into people of the Old South who were decent, well meaning and believed in equality and justice, but were still segregationists. It is a complicated, and conflicted, story, but it is the truth.

Published as “Rewriting History” March 17, 2019 in The Tuscaloosa News.