A grave mistake
9/15/2017, 12:16 p.m.
Marc H. Morial
“I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy. You shared your thoughts about her life and her works and how they changed our nation and represented our most cherished values … Her incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embodies the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates, and we will continue to value her legacy by honoring her on our currency.” — Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew
As the nation has begun the process of removing public monuments to the Confederacy — traitors who waged war against the United States to preserve slavery — we have at last begun to focus on the difference between observing history and honoring heroes.
One way nations honor national heroes is by depicting them on currency. Around the world, currency depicts writers, artists, scientists, activists and others as a means of national tribute. Against the backdrop of the Confederate monument debate, a planned tribute to abolitionist and anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman would be a powerful gesture of racial reconciliation.
Now, however, that gesture of reconciliation is threatened. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchen, the former CEO of a major bank that stands accused of racial discrimination, has backed away from plans to feature Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
Abandoning this long-overdue tribute would be a grave mistake. At a time when the nation desperately seeks reconciliation, this gesture sends the callous message that white supremacy takes precedence over the history of slavery and the unfathomable courage of those who fought to end it.
It is particularly apt that Harriet Tubman’s image was chosen to replace that of Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder whose chief achievement as president was the forced removal of 15,000 Native Americans from their ancestral homes. More than 4,000 people died during the brutal upheaval known as the Trail of Tears.
Harriet Tubman not only escaped from bondage and rescued dozens of people from enslavement as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, she served the Union Army as a nurse, an armed scout and a spy. She risked her life — many times over — and gave all she had in service of others.
The debate over the $20 bill reflects a larger struggle happening right now in the United States. The nation grows more diverse as women and people of color are taking their rightful places of leadership. There are many who meet this change with fear and resistance. The neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville earlier this summer chanted, “You will not replace us!” — a desperate cry of fear if ever there was one.
The demographic shift in the United States represents a broadening of perspectives, not a replacement. Our history is not solely the story of wealthy white men, although our choice of public tributes might reflect that. As my friend Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, said as he removed Confederate monuments from my beloved home city, “All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot; creating, producing something better; everything a product of our historic diversity. We are proof that out of many we are one — and better for it!”
It’s time that our public institutions reflected that historic diversity. We are a nation of many colors, many creeds and our history is rich with the contributions of men and women of every background and heritage. Honoring Harriet Tubman is a step forward in acknowledging our truth as a nation. Now is not the time to step backward.
The writer, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.