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Michael Alpert is the president of the Greater Bangor Area Branch NAACP. He also serves as chair of the Board of Ethics for the city of Bangor. He has worked as the director of the University of Maine Press for 25 years.
As president of the Greater Bangor Area Branch NAACP, I am writing to support the removal of Maine-born Chief Justice Melville Fuller’s statue from the grounds of the Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta. This column should be read as coming from a statewide representative of NAACP members and friends.
The history of our country includes many individuals who deserve to be honored. We have a rich and admirable heritage. The two great stains that sully our history are the treatment of our Indigenous population and the sorry fact of American Slavery.
It took hundreds of years and a bloody Civil War to end forced servitude in this country. Slavery was stopped; but after it ended, the stain of its injustice continued with the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, decided with Fuller’s full support. That single court case did more to harm America than any other Supreme Court ruling since our country’s founding.
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Using Plessy v. Ferguson, much of the United States doubled down in its abhorrent and often violent racist behavior. For more than half a century, African American citizens were denied basic human rights. These citizens faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles in education, housing, employment, voting rights, fair treatment by law enforcement, service in hotels and restaurants and many other areas of daily life. Individual citizens were unjustly shunned, disparaged, tormented and sometimes killed.
Fuller’s lack of moral compass in Plessy v. Ferguson was, in large measure, responsible for this horrible blight on American justice.
We in Maine cannot honor what is wrong while striving to do what is right. Justice means equal opportunity for all, fair treatment under law, inclusion in civic life, and legal protection in private matters. It also means empathetic support for those in genuine need.
Symbols matter. Who we honor matters. Justice and freedom are not served by holding Fuller in high esteem. His legacy should be relegated to what history has made of it. As twenty first century citizens, we should transcend the confines of that history.