Ted Van Dyk

The legacy of George Pickett

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The City of Bellingham’s decision to remove identifying signs from Pickett Bridge, as well as directional signs leading to the nearby Pickett House, was no doubt well intended but it fed intolerance at a time when tolerance is badly needed locally and everywhere. It also reflected an ignorance of history.

Capt. George Pickett commanded a small U.S. Army detachment here in the 1850s. He constructed Pickett Bridge across Whatcom Creek. He married a local Native American woman. When she died, he cared for their child for the rest of his life. His shingled home, just up the hill from the Lighthouse Mission, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest building in the city. In 1861, when Civil War broke out, Pickett, like most southern U.S. Army officers, resigned to join his home-state forces. States, rather than the federal government, were seen then as commanding first loyalty among citizens. (General Robert E. Lee, also a Virginian, was offered command of Union forces at the time but opted as others to join the Confederacy).

The war, at its outset, was more about state’s rights than about slavery—although slavery increasingly was recognized as criminal and sinful. Agrarian southern states regarded themselves as being dominated in national governance by the industrial north. This was part of a debate that had begun when the original Articles of Confederation, calling for a system of independent states, gave way to a Constitution which provided a unitary state.

President Abraham Lincoln had not, at the outset, called for the end of slavery. He supported a number of measures, including the sending of American slaves back to Africa. But, as support for the war waned in the north, he issued an Emancipation Proclamation which ended slavery and gave new energy and purpose to the Union cause. Lee, for his part, had founded pre-war programs providing education to slaves. His mother had aided their escape to the north. He was no slavery advocate and was universally respected for his temperance.

Back to Pickett: Over time Pickett rose to the rank of Confederate general and, as fate would have it, led the bloody, failed Pickett’s charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, which Lee had ordered and which turned the tide of the war.

Statues of Lee exist in many American cities, north and south. One was placed in statuary hall of the U.S. Capitol by both Democrats and Republicans during the 1960s.

Lee statues, today, are being defaced and torn down at many locations, including during the recent disturbances in Charlottesville, VA. In southern states, in particular, statues of Lee and other Confederate figures, as well as cemeteries for Confederate war dead, have been a part of daily life over decades for descendants of those who served and died for the Confederacy. Most of those honored and interred were no more racist than ordinary German, Russian, Chinese and Cambodian citizens in the 20th century were Nazis, Stalinists, Maoist or followers of Pol Pot.

I had the good fortune to serve as Sen. and Vice President Humphrey’s assistant during his sponsorship of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Great Society breakthroughs of the mid-1960s when we enacted the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, and War on Poverty programs designed to lift all citizens—but minority citizens in particular—to an equal place at the starting line. Conservative, southern Democratic committee chairs attempted to block civil-rights legislation in the Senate. It took 67 votes then, not the present-day 60, to break a filibuster and force a floor vote. But President Johnson and Humphrey assembled a broad, bipartisan coalition, both inside and outside the Congress, to support and pass the legislation and change the country forever.

In the 1970s I served as the volunteer representative in Washington, DC of the Southern Elections Fund, chaired by Julian Bond, later head of the NAACP. In that role I traveled often to southern states to help black candidates for mayor, sheriff, and other local-level offices. I found then, and have found since, that many white southerners enthusiastically supported these candidates. Only a small, residual group of white supremacists remains. Their principal tactic, being utilized again now, is to generate anger and confrontation among African American and more liberal groups so as to gain media attention and, thus, to help with their recruitment and fundraising. Sure enough, their opponents have taken the bait and have responded not always peacefully but with angry, violent demonstrations of their own. These confrontations, covered amply by media, have left a false impression that racism in 2017 is just as viral as it was in post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan days or even as recently as the 1960s.

During Great Society days we never dreamed that race issues would be polarizing Americans in 2017. We passed laws to end legal discrimination for or against anyone on the basis of race, gender, religion, ethnicity or other irrelevant factor. We initiated job training, education, health, nutrition, and other programs to enable poor and minorities to rise. Since then African Americans have risen to the highest levels in government, business, labor, the arts, finance and philanthropy. We have had a two-term black President. Yet, at grassroots level, urban black communities in particular are burdened with deplorable school dropout and incarceration rates, drugs, crime, broken or nonexistent families, and black-white dialogue has degraded to blame placing and worse.

The times remind of 1968, when people of good will disagreed on the Vietnam War and on domestic social issues. But they were drowned out and, for a time, marginalized by strident, destructive groups out to provoke violence and polarization. I fear that the confrontations we are seeing today could lead to the murder and other violence that took place then.

Founding fathers and Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were slaveowners. So was President Andrew Jackson. In the 20th century President Theodore Roosevelt was a war lover and President Woodrow Wilson a serious violator of civil liberties. President Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-American civilians in World War II and tolerated segregation of the armed forces. President Harry Truman authorized nuclear and firebomb attacks against civilian Japanese targets.

President Dwight Eisenhower tolerated McCarthyism in his political party and country. President John Kennedy launched an expensive Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union and got us embroiled in Vietnam; President Lyndon Johnson continued that embroilment. President Bill Clinton got immersed in dubious ethical and financial matters in the White House. President George W. Bush launched an unwise intervention in Iraq. President Barack Obama did the same in Libya.

Yet all those leaders had redeeming qualities which cause us to make balanced, overall judgments about them.

No one has yet proposed tearing down their statues or removing them from our histories. We are, in fact, doing the opposite locally by constructing a memorial to Asian and other victims of local violence and discrimination in the early 20th century. We are not, to my knowledge, proposing that we rename local streets or take down local gravestones bearing the names of civic leaders of that time.

Statues and symbols can be important. But more important is daily life on the ground for our citizens. In Bellingham, for instance, we grapple with poverty and unemployment rates above both the state and national averages; a shortage of family-wage jobs; unaffordable housing and homelessness; widespread opioid and heroin abuse; and the problem of a huge waterfront development which threatens to eat far more public revenues than it will conceivably produce. We should not waste energy and attention on a southern-born Army officer who built Fort Bellingham in the 1850s and left mostly positive local marks.

Ted Van Dyk retired in his hometown of Bellingham two years ago after a long career in national Democratic policy and politics.