Note: We’ve received multiple requests that Dr. Berner’s email be linked within this article. As it was not a public post made on any website, but rather an email to Sewanee students and faculty, we’ve included the full text in the comments below.
Dear Dr. Berner,
We write regarding your recent email encouraging students to refrain from “individual action” against racist artifacts and symbols at Sewanee. The University’s unwillingness to celebrate a material protest against an artifact of the Lost Cause is discouraging, especially after the Board of Regents’ decision to finally disavow the Confederacy and the Lost Cause last September.
The individual who removed the sculpture sent two letters explaining their decision and treated the bust with respect, despite Leonidas Polk deserving little in life, and even less in death. It’s not that Polk, and many other people who are enshrined as icons across campus, “might be considered problematic.” Unquestionably, “Sewanee’s Fighting Bishop” was a vile, murderous, treasonous slaver who tried to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. Even by the standards of 19th century ethics, Polk’s legacy is indefensible. Any critic of the anonymous student concerned with “presentism” would do well to remember that roughly half of the United States was against slavery when Polk died. His greatest service to Sewanee (and humankind) was his generous decision to step in front of a cannonball at Pine Mountain. Are we really expected to wait until June of 2022 for a committee of academics to confirm what a five minute Google search would reveal about Polk, or any other bigot commemorated on this campus?
Many of the greatest revolutionaries, peace makers, and activists throughout history began their work as individuals precisely because larger groups and systems were not doing enough. An anonymous student at Sewanee thought critically about the harm that this institution caused their peers, then acted on their conscience. The act of taking Polk’s bust was a profound statement of individual morality over institutional bureaucracy. It took the University over a century to confirm what the Union Army decided in 1865; it’s no wonder students have lost trust in University committees.
We should encourage students to seek justice within harmful institutions. It’s defeatist to assert that real change cannot be introduced by the actions of a single person, and that’s the message that comes across in your email. Reckoning with the past begins with discomfort in the present, and that was demonstrated by the necessary and ethical removal of Polk’s bust from duPont.
The Sewanee Spectre