Revisionist History

Revisionist History by CREDIT - Bill Hudson, AP
CREDIT – Bill Hudson, AP

The above picture was taken in 1963, during a protest march for civil rights, in the United States. This was the time in history when Martin Luther King and his people were organizing sit-ins, boycotts, and marches to protest their oppression. They were looking for a means to turn public opinion in their favor by provoking the police.
They got their moment on that day in 1963. The protest march started at a church near the Kelly Ingram Park. Besides the protestors, there was a crowd to watch the march and police to control both of them. The police stood between the spectators and the protestors. And they had dogs. Then the dog, controlled by a white police officer, attacked one of the foot soldiers, an innocent looking black boy.
The picture became famous. Newspapers printed it above the fold. The President was asked about it; Congress discussed it; there were debates around the country. Eventually, the civil rights act was passed.
All of this was fine, except that the photo did not represent the reality. This was the topic of a recent Revisionist History podcast.
The boy in the picture was Walter Gadsden. He had skipped school and was walking to meet a friend when he saw the protests. He moved away from the marchers when he was attacked by the dog. In a later interview, Gadsden revealed that he had no connection to the civil rights movement. He was neither a participant nor a foot soldier. Also, the police officer had not unleashed the dog on the boy; he was trying to pull the dog away to save the boy.
There is a statue at the Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham which memorializes this incident. The dog attacking the boy scene has been immortalized; a powerful memory which people had chosen to preserve. The Podcast makes the case that even though that particular incident was technically wrong, the statue is an art (the dog turns into a wolf, the boy is falling down) needs to be seen as an interpretation.
Thus does it matter that the basis of the statue at Kelly Ingram Park was incorrect? Doesn’t it miss the big picture of what happened in 1963? Did police use dogs at that time? Sure they did. These kind of gotcha stories are an example of missing the forest for the trees. Societies which are not obsessed with these low-level details have ways to abstract the wisdom of events into stories which can be retold.

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