Husser: The first steps toward healing involve remembering
Washington Parish in Louisiana sure doesn't look like the cutting edge of anything, much less a place at the frontlines of racial reconciliation, but a milestone event in American history is happening in a poor rural community with about as many alligators as people.
In 1965, during the height of the civil rights movement, a group of suspected Ku Klux Klan members piled into a pickup somewhere near the village of Varnado. They proceeded to ambush the patrol car of the first two black deputy sheriffs in the parish. Creed Rodgers was severely injured and Oneal Moore, a 34-year-old father of four and Army veteran, was assassinated in a hate crime.
Almost half a century later, a region that wrought such horror and injustice is doing something right. It is remembering. Sheriff Randy “Country” Seal has started the process of building a memorial to Moore in the entrance of his department’s very modest headquarters in my childhood hometown.
This memorial, and many like it throughout the country, may seem inconsequential, but memorials are so much more. Places like the International Civil Rights Museum in North Carolina, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Ground Zero, or the forthcoming and admittedly more modest Fallen Heroes Memorial in Washington Parish serve a higher social purpose. They are embodiments of memories.
Memory is recognition and recognition is power. "Memory has fueled merciless, violent strife, and it has been at the core of reconciliation and reconstruction,” writes William James Booth, a political theorist at Vanderbilt University and a personal mentor of mine. “It has been used to justify great crimes, and yet it is central to the pursuit of justice."
Forgetting the bad parts of our past is appealing. Those who caution against “unburying a hatchet” are selling snake oil. Whatever short-term therapeutic value found in blocking a negative event from our minds is overwhelmingly outweighed by the long-term harm of losing the memory of public atrocity.
Without things like this memorial to Deputy Oneal Moore, communities become forgetful. I spent much of my childhood in Washington Parish never hearing about Moore or that a group of domestic terrorists use to murder black people in my community. A single person’s lack of knowledge has dire consequences when aggregated to society as a whole. Not remembering compromises accountability, devalues justice and hinders growth of political community, all of which are essential processes for a democracy.
The South and the nation should not forget the Civil War or its more recent civil rights abuses, just as Germany should not forget the Holocaust. So, too, communities small and large must not forget the most unpleasant parts of their past. If we don't adequately remember injustice, we empower its resurrection and risk losing ground.
Continuing racial reconciliation in the South doesn't require "outside agitators." It doesn’t require major organizations. Individuals can share memories with younger generations through words, images or text. Community leaders can build memorials or hold community conversations. Governments can issue formal statements of recognition, apology or appreciation.
Will memory solve all the hurt of a troubled past? Certainly no. Will it help? Certainly yes. And, "help" is about all we can ask for in our complicated world.
The Fallen Heroes Memorial being built to honor Oneal Moore doesn't only make me proud of being born in the parish seat, or of being a Southerner, or even of Sheriff “Country” Seal, whom I consider a friend. This intentional collective remembering of a hero and the context of his heroism makes me proud to be an American.
Now if only more American communities will give their natives such pride.
Jason Husser is an assistant professor of political science and assistant director of the Elon University Poll. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.