As we use history to frame how we see ourselves, we can also use it to frame how we understand progress. The University of Texas at Austin faces a compelling and easily sensitive question: does it change the name of one of its dormitories because it memorializes a former Klansman?
The university’s leaders only recently learned about the late Professor William S. Simkins’ biases. The question, and particularly our approach to it, reveals a lot about not only the institution’s character and interest in a peaceful future, but those of the state, and of our country.
A key question persists:
- At what point does someone’s past, however vile or evil as many other people may see it, stop tainting their present day?
William S. Simkins was a devotee of the Ku Klux Klan before he taught at the university. He reportedly referred to his membership and to his own bigotry in speeches while he was a professor. How necessary is it to remember someone at their worst when their present day conduct, or simply a faded public memory, might grant mercy or lean toward less toxic memories?
As News 8 Austin reports, understandably many people are concerned about the message, which Mr, Simkins’ legacy sends about the university, and even the wider community.
In looking at Mr. Simkins’ case, some reporters have compared him to the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who also subscribed to the Klan’s ideology in his youth. But as Sen. Byrd grew, his attitude and openness to other peoples and their differences did too.
The University of Texas at Austin faces the question of renaming a dormitory, not pushing through legislation that might allow some peoples’ access or power to something that had been denied. The scope of the consequences is minor. The question is not.
For other situations, when may we decide that someone’s actions or attitudes, in the present, overshadow their offensive?
A few words to remember:
- Focus on that, which unites us, rather than those ideas, which divide.
For some bizarre reason, we, in the United States, but also across the world, focus on the negative by reflex.