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Addressing racism and refuting ignorance

By Scott Tibbs, November 21, 2008

I disagree with the Herald-Times editorial that simply adding William Garrett's name to the Wildermuth Intramural Center was a "wise" move. It was not wise, it was a cop-out. A columnist for the Indiana Daily Student reported in 2007 that Ora Wildermuth had written several racist letters defending segregation and demeaning blacks, and there have been calls since then to have his name removed. Simply adding Garrett's name does not erase the fact that Indiana University is honoring a racist.

Some would argue that we cannot hold Wildermuth to today's standards on morality. (This argument is also often used when pointing out that Abraham Lincoln harbored white supremacist views.) That is silly. Fundamental principles of right and wrong do not change, shift and evolve with time. Those moral standards are unchanging and eternal. Either we live under an eternal, unchanging code of morality or we don't. Arguing that standards have changes is to argue there are no fundamental moral standards at all.

That said, the Herald-Times made a grave and serious error by invoking the controversial Benton mural in Woodburn Hall. (For more on the mural, see editorials from February 4, 2002 and April 25, 2005.) Following is an email I sent to H-T editor Bob Zaltsberg on the matter.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: The H-T's portrayal of the Benton mural
Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2008 20:16:02 -0500
From: Scott Tibbs <tibbs1973@yahoo.com>
To: Bob Zaltsberg <rzaltsberg@heraldt.com>

Mr. Zaltsberg,

In your editorial today, you mentioned of the Thomas Hart Benton mural in Woodburn Hall that Indiana University "has allowed the mural to stand despite its racist connotations." Please allow me to share a picture of the mural with you.

You are correct in stating that the mural is "balanced by the many positive images that surround it." However, you make the same error that many other people have made - some honestly and some otherwise - in focusing on the picture of the Ku Klux Klan to the exclusion of the other images around it. It is significant that below the image of KKK members burning a cross is a larger figure representing racial harmony - a white nurse caring for a black baby. The depictions of journalists are also historically significant, as it was a newspaper that helped bring down the Klan in Indiana.

To place emphasis on the image of the Klan presents a situation that is simply not accurate, in conflict with the Herald-Times stated purpose to strive for accuracy. Also, considering Mr. Benton was an opponent of the Klan, it is grossly unfair to associate his mural depicting historical images as having "racist connotations". I believe the Herald-Times should apologize to both Indiana University and the Benton family for this characterization.

There has been far too much propaganda and far too many outright lies by shameless race-baiting demagogues regarding the Benton mural in Woodburn Hall. Your false and unfair characterization of the mural, unintentional though it may be, only aids this demagoguery. I strongly urge you to thoughtfully consider the true story behind the Benton mural before you publish any more editorials about it.

Scott Tibbs