American history is complex. It is both inspiring in its democratic ideals, and it is full of bitterness, tyranny and oppression when we have deliberately defied those principles. On the one hand, we proclaimed that “All men are created equal,” yet there are millions of situations where we simply did not live up to those high standards embedded in our founding documents. As a history teacher I disapprove taking down public statues of people that were once thought honorable enough to be enshrined in bronze. However, as a human being I dislike monuments dedicated to racists without disavowing those racist sentiments. This creates a dilemma. The statue of Melville Fuller in Augusta creates one of those dilemmas.

We need to tell the complete story of Melville Fuller. That includes the context of the times in which he lived. Yes, he was the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a high position for a Mainer that brought him accolades and enormous judicial power. However, Chief Justice Fuller was also the leader of the court who enshrined Plessy v. Ferguson into national law, thereby locking African Americans into second-class status in America for 70-plus years.

This ruling may have seemed progressive at the time; it tried to balance the desires of strict racial segregationists with the need for African Americans to participate in all manner of service to the economy. But it effectively relegated dark-skinned Americans into second-class legal status. Plessy enshrined oppression and suffering for millions of Americans. So, despite Melville Fuller’s ascension to the highest judicial seat in America, he also is responsible for a landmark ruling in American history that prevented Black and Brown Americans from having the same rights and status that light-skinned Americans took for granted. This story needs to be told alongside the “local boy makes good” story.

I suggest that we keep the statue of Melville Fuller up at the Augusta courthouse but also that we put a historical plaque beside the monument that tells the story of Plessy v. Ferguson and what it meant to Americans and American jurisprudence.

Melville Fuller’s legacy is complicated. The whole story needs to be told, for if we erase our long terrible history of racism we may pretend that it is not a central fact of our history, or worse, that we have somehow transcended race prejudice today.

These are simply facts of our complex history. Americans need to know our complete history and grapple with the racial disparities that are glaringly obvious today. An educational plaque moves in the right direction to accomplish both goals.

Fuller may have been thought great in his time, but this was a time in America where we failed to live up to our democratic ideals.

Tom Renckens is a resident of Augusta.


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