DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posed on Odyssey.
If Faith Rosenwald is reading this, I want her to understand that I am going to rebut her article with no sense of anger or name-calling directed at her, but rather I am addressing the arguments she presents about keeping the name of George Wallace on the road in Troy, Alabama (specifically South George Wallace Drive). Her article was in response to a petition to rename a road that leads to Troy University, because it is named after George Wallace, a political figure known for his pro-segregation stance during the Civil Rights movement.
So to Faith Rosenwald, if one of your main points for keeping its name is that this road “happens” to be named after George Wallace, then you would probably have no problem if the name “happens” to change? The road name itself does not endorse segregation nor does it make Troy or all of Alabama look bad, but it does endorse a governor most known for attempting to preserve segregation in his own state. You state that we should still commemorate George Wallace because he was a historical figure and a Governor of Alabama, however there is a difference between history that is celebrated in the public space and history that is analyzed in a museum.
Historical preservation becomes a completely different story when it involves a structure that tax-payers rely on not just for celebration or sight-seeing, but for transportation on a daily basis. This especially applies when black Alabaman tax-payers have to use a road named after a man who would have used the power of the state to segregate them in the workplace that they are driving towards. In their perspectives, it would undermine their respect for Alabaman history and create even further division.
If history remains history, then it would be better for this part of history to remain in a museum. I think that it is important for people, especially Alabamans, to learn about George Wallace, since museums are among the most trusted sources of information, since they merely offer an impartial glimpse into a past that is no longer relevant, especially a past when integration was considered by George Wallace a Communist plot to create a “mongrel unit of one.” Instead of simply driving down this road to be thankful for the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, you could be thankful within a Civil Rights museum that could house the signs that originally bore the name “South George Wallace Drive.” You just cannot separate George Wallace from his segregation views and actions, especially when his 1963 Inauguration Speech talked of the superiority of the “great Anglo-Saxon Southland.”
Yes, I am aware that he changed his views about race and segregation when he ran for Governor of Alabama for the fourth time, however that did not outweigh two of the other times he was Governor of Alabama nor his presidential run when he became the beacon for segregation during one of the most crucial periods in American history. For that reason, we cannot analyze George Wallace the same way the Founding Fathers were, with acknowledgements such as “Yes, they owned slaves. Yes, they had illegitimate children. But they also drafted one of the most important legislative documents in human history.” In modern-day America, when people think of George Wallace, they associate his name more with segregation and right-wing populism than the change in his worldview.
In fact, you did not seem to reference any of his positive achievements that could outweigh his fervent stance on segregation. In fact, in that same article you hyperlinked it briefly mentioned his campaign to help the poor, but then went on to say that “…those calls became a distant second to his harping on the racial issue.” Even though he originally sympathized with the working class in his early life and as a judge, he entered politics only to end up relying on their fears, hatred, and economic insecurity to actually succeed in gaining their vote.
I am not from Alabama nor have I lived in it nor have I attended Troy University, so I am not in the position to seriously recommend any alternative names, rather I can only make suggestions. If you were wondering what my suggestion would be, I cannot think of a new name, but I would like it to consist of words from the language of the Creek Nation, a Native American tribe who lived in Alabama for more than one thousand years before European colonization.
It would be a good alternative because if your major reason for keeping the name is because if you want to honor Alabaman history, then you could honor Alabaman history beyond its contemporary time and even its time of colonization and into more than one thousand years of archaeological history. This new name would also provide in-sight into how the Creek Nation took advantage of their land for that span of time, specifically when that name describes the features of the land, what plants grow on it, and what animals dwell on it, in the same way that Australian place-names have started reclaiming their indigenous names. You would be taking into consideration not only the history of Alabama, but also the landscape and the biodiversity that it contains. This is what makes studying the relationship between the indigenous population and their land so important.
I think it would be educational for future generations of Alabamans, including the students of Troy University, a tertiary institution which already hosts pow-wows by the Ma-Chis Lower Creek Indian Tribe, to commemorate the mound-building cultures and the modern tribes that descended from them. It would definitely be crucial for this tribe to be the ones to rename the road, so they would gain modern-day relevance by letting Alabamans know that they are not some forgotten part of American history, but active participants in Alabaman cultural life. Not only would this name change correct the wrongs committed against the African-American population, but also the Native American population as well.
I do not know if you consider my article “whack” or what Judge Wes Allan called “political correctness gone amok,” but I hoped that I provided a more interesting angle to this debate. I understand if nobody’s mind is changed upon reading this article, but I wanted to apply my own fascinations with linguistics into real-world situations like this. Upon looking at the tragic, complex nature of George Wallace, I would say that his legacy can only be examined in state governmental institutions that already house the legacies of past Alabaman governors.