On Jan. 8, George Will *68 wrote a Washington Post column, “Wokeness comes for a statue,” and questioned the wisdom of a demand, by some, to remove the statue of John Witherspoon from campus because he owned two slaves (On the Campus, January issue). I replied in a letter published by The Washington Post on Jan. 13 that I agreed with him and cautioned that it is myopic to judge too harshly the behavior of others through a historical lens of several centuries.
I suggested that instead of removing Witherspoon’s statue, it would be more instructive to erect two additional statues to acknowledge the significant contributions and courage of two Princetonians to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. John Doar ’44 provided legal support to freedom riders and other civil rights activists and escorted James Meredith to register at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Nicholas Katzenbach ’43 represented the federal government at the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” at the direction of John F. Kennedy ’39 and confronted then Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who unsuccessfully tried to prevent the enrollment of two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, at the University of Alabama in June 1963.
Statues are intended to commemorate, but they should also educate. The mission of Princeton, above all else, is to educate. I would suggest that the statues of Doar and Katzenbach should be placed on either side of Witherspoon not only to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, but to emphasize the progress that has been made and to remind us all of how much work on racial harmony remains to be done. A small plaque with a short history of the actions of the three men at the base of the statues would enhance the education of all who pass by. It should also be remembered that Witherspoon was the only college president who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Where would racial justice be today without that document? Interpretation of history is not straightforward, it is nuanced. All historical figures have blemishes, as did Witherspoon. If the statue of Witherspoon is removed and nothing more, the opportunity for education disappears as well.