9/10/2017 4:42:00 PM EDITORIAL: Learning the lessons of history
Indiana University made the right decision in rejecting an effort to take down a painting that has been hanging in one of its lecture halls for more than 75 years.
The painting by Thomas Hart Benton shows hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross in front of a church.
A petition filed by Jacquline Barrie, a former IU student now living in Florida, suggests that the painting might be seen as an endorsement of such hateful acts. In light of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Barrie says, the university should take down the painting or at least move it to a museum.
“It is past time that Indiana University take a stand and denounce hate and intolerance in Indiana and on IU’s campus,” the petition reads.
The campaign had its supporters. The petition drew more than 1,100 signatures.
To its credit, the university said no.
“Through much discussion, analysis and reflection over many years, Indiana University has consistently concluded that education is the best response to concerns over the Benton Murals,” the school said on its webpage.
In reality, the painting shows far more than the petition might suggest.
The scene of a cross burning actually appears in the background of the painting. In the foreground are a reporter and a photographer watching a white nurse care for both a white child and a black child in an Indianapolis hospital.
The painting recalls a period in the 1920s when members of the KKK had found their way to the highest levels of Indiana government, but it also recalls the work of reporters for the Indianapolis Times whose efforts to shine a light on the Klan’s activities earned them a Pulitzer Prize.
And it reflects perhaps the artist’s hope that the state might be moving away from the bigotry of the past and toward a more tolerant future.
Thus the painting is at once a warning and a celebration. It reminds us of a dark moment in state history, but it also recalls the courage of journalists who helped to bring that sorry chapter to an end.
The work is part of a mural commissioned by the state of Indiana to hang in an Indiana hall at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The mural found its way to Indiana University in 1941 at the invitation of Herman B. Wells, then the university’s president.
Through his mural, Benton sought to depict Indiana history from “the time of the mound builders through the industrialized age.” He wanted to show all of the state’s history, both the good times and the bad.
It’s tempting to paint over the bad parts, to erase them from our collective memories.
But, of course, we can’t do that. If we fail to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. We cannot learn the lessons of history if we fail to recognize the times we strayed off course.
The glory days of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana are certainly not a time we should celebrate, and the image of an organization promoting racial animosity should make all of us uncomfortable.
But particularly today, at a time when purveyors of hate seem all too comfortable showing their faces in public, we need images like this one to remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.
A college campus is the perfect place to learn those lessons. IU’s leadership should be applauded for recognizing that.