Old and New History

Posted on May 4, 2021


Slavery was abolished by the Emancipation Declaration of 1863 and uprooted by the final military victory of North over the South in April 1865. There followed a century of conflict largely in the South to free truly the ex-slaves and give them all the rights of all citizens, like the right to vote, to have equal access to education, etc. The next hundred years marked the long period of segregation and Jim Crow laws which formally ended in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement.

The fact that we have been right or wrong in our sympathies and interpretations of how the South dealt with the losses of the Civil War is part of history. No one can defend lynching and segregation. But to destroy history, tearing down statues to Southern heroes like Robert E. Lee, and trying to “cancel” the past by denigrating it and labeling it with scorching rhetoric and victimization theories is like ignoring your own personal past. You can’t cancel history any more than you can change your past.

Manufacturing such corrupt theories as “systemic racism” and the 1619 Project which ascribes racism to all the vices ever to have occurred in this country is blatantly self-serving. It is like looking at your own past and denying you ever did anything wrong, and then systematically rewriting it.

Recently the University of Alabama Press published a book by Nimrod Fraser, Send the Alabamians: World War One Fighters in the Rainbow Division.

It is the story of the 167th Regiment of the WWI Rainbow Division whose reputation in the carnage of the First World War was unparalleled, prompting a young Brigadier General, Douglas MacArthur, to observe that their actions have never “been surpassed in military history.”  One of their early commanding officers, General Edward H. Plummer, was equally impressed with their ferocity and esprit de corps, and exclaimed, “In time of war, send me all the Alabamians you can get, but in time of peace, for Lord’s sake, send them to somebody else!” Spoken like a true commanding officer!

“The ferocity of the Alabamians,” noted the book blurb, “so apt to get them in trouble at home, proved invaluable in the field. At the climactic Battle of Croix Rouge, the hot-blooded 167th exhibited unflinching valor and, in the face of machine guns, artillery shells, and poison gas, sustained casualty rates over 50 percent to dislodge and repel the deeply entrenched and heavily armed enemy.”

The 167th had a history going back to the Indian wars of the 1830s when it was formed, and later fought in the major battles of the Civil War as the 4th Alabama. As moderns turn to systemic racism, white supremacy, and other tropes to describe their world, they also plunge into the past, history, to rewrite it to suit their politics. The 4th Alabama was renumbered the 167th Infantry Regiment of the famed American Rainbow Division. It was all white and what else needs to be said; it was racist in the extreme. Cancel it.

But as you rewrite history, you undermine the very strength of this country devoted to truth, justice, liberty, and freedom. These virtues may not always have prevailed in history, but each moment, good or bad, cannot be forgotten any more than closing your own brain and memory to something you did wrong, or to something that hurt you and, yes, may have even victimized you.

But don’t dump the 167th into the trash heap, dragged down off their pedestal like Christopher Columbus. Let me quote from the book blurb by the University of Alabama Press which published Send the Alabamians.

“The 167th’s hard-won victories and high casualty rate won the awed admiration of observers, but their achievements have gone largely overlooked in descriptions of that bloody conflict. The defining battle for the 167th was the Battle of Croix Rouge Farm in eastern France’s Champagne region. There on July 24, 1918, the 167th was tasked with dislodging a deeply entrenched and heavily armed German battalion. On a muddy field swept by burning machinegun fire, rent by exploding artillery shells, and poisoned with gas weapons, half the members of the Rainbow Brigade perished. But not only did they hold their ground, they advanced, broke the German line, and propelled the Kaiser’s troops back across the Rhine.”

Memorial to 167th Regiment, Rainbow Division, France, First World War

File:167th Infantry, Alabama, 4th Alabama Infantry, WWI Memorial, France.JPG (see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:167th_Infantry,_Alabama,_4th_Alabama_Infantry,_WWI_Memorial,_France.JPG for full citation

Let me mention another two outfits, the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332 Fighter Group, all African American squadrons who flew hundreds of combat missions in Africa and Europe against the Axis powers in World War II.  General Jim Crow was not among those pilots trained largely at Tuskegee to fly their P-47s, P-51s and other fighter aircraft into combat.

And go see the movie Forrest Gump again, or perhaps see it for the first time—even in fiction—and learn how far Alabama blacks and whites have come in fighting America’s wars over the twentieth century.

Published as “Efforts to ‘cancel’ or rewrite history are like ignoring your own past,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, May 2, 2021.