As they decide the future of the Melville Fulller statue in from of the Kennebec County courthouse, county commissioners should remember that Augusta isn’t just another small town on a vast nation’s map. It’s a state capital — in New England, no less, a region with a history of dogged abolitionism.

Today in America, we’re living through a turning point — a reckoning with slavery’s aftershocks and a recommitment to the possibility of progress.

If we keep the statue of Fuller, a pivotal segregationist as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in front of our courthouse, we’ll be turning our back on history.

Make no mistake. The statue is an outstanding piece of art. Like our famous labor mural, its rightful place is the Maine State Museum.

But the entrance to our halls of justice should not remind visitors of the infamous words “separate but equal.” For justice to truly be blind, it must be color-blind. One nation, indivisible.

Commissioner Nancy Rines is right. I didn’t protest the installation of the statue. But at the time, I didn’t even know about it. And even I had known, I didn’t know that Fuller presided over Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruling that cemented half a century of racial segregation as the law of the land.

It affirmed the “right” of southern legislatures to pass laws that required Black train passengers to ride in what came to be known as “Jim Crow” coaches. By extension, it legalized discrimination in every aspect of American life. “Colored only” bathrooms. White-only and Black-only schools, swimming pools, and motels. Seats at the back of the bus.

In effect, it ushered in the Jim Crow era of white supremacy, a peculiarly American institution that abounds to this day both north and south. Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth African American, broke Louisiana’s law to tested it in court. He lost, thanks, in good measure, to Melville Fuller.

I’m guessing that a lot of other readers were as blindsided as I was to read the Kennebec Journal’s story about the statue. Now we know it’s there. It simply has to go.

Commissioner Patsy Crockett wants to hear what others think before making up her mind.  She wants to look at Fuller’s “overall performance.” On the face of it, that seems fair. But “the more input the merrier”?

Even Mississippi is taking steps to overcome its heritage. Can Augusta? If we can’t, we’ll rightly be scorned by the nation.

Likewise, Rines seems to want an opinion poll to decide an issue of justice. She says: “Is that what the people want? That’s what I’m waiting to find out.”

Crocket also says, “Back when they made the decision, people felt that was a good decision.”

Not everyone. The court’s vote wasn’t unanimous. Justice John Marshall (ironically, a southerner) wrote: “The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race . . . is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution.”

And many Americans agreed. Racism had its friends and foes then, as it does now. John Brown’s body is still in the grave.

To be fair, the commissioners were taken by surprise. An unexpected phone call from a reporter isn’t the easiest way to learn about a probably divisive issue. The judges who were discussing the statue’s removal could have given them a courtesy call.

I’ve met both Patsy Crockett and Nancy Rines. I like them. They’re smart and dedicated and they strive to do the right thing. So I hope that they (and Commissioner George Jabar II, who wasn’t quoted in the article) take this as a simple reminder: Leadership takes more than brains, dedication, and good intentions. It takes the willingness to be unpopular.

Melville Fuller, for all his accomplishments, was on the wrong side of history. By taking him off his pedestal, our county commissioners can help set history right.

This isn’t a popularity contest. This isn’t “America’s Got Talent.” This is America’s got some accounting to do. There’s a flag that blows in the wind over our capital. It bears our motto: Dirigo. I lead.

Don’t wait to see which way the wind blows, commissioners. Just lead.

Charlie Bernstein lives in Augusta.


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