Francis Walter Dam has same stigma as a school named for KKK's founder

It was the most rancorous period in America since the Civil War.

It was a time in which Americans were afraid to speak their minds, afraid of the self-righteous paladins of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was one of the most un-American assemblages ever conceived.

It also was a time of upheaval, when many so-called Americans opposed an emerging movement aimed at giving nonwhites equality.

In recent days, controversy raged over the vestiges of that second situation. It seems some black families in Florida do not care for the name of their children's school. The Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville is named for a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. It would be like making Jewish children attend a school named after Adolf Hitler.

There is no raging fuss, at least not yet, over a structure on the Lehigh River named for one of the self-righteous paladins who helped bring a frightening level of tyranny to America, during the closest brush with fascism in the nation's history.

The Francis E. Walter Dam, on the Carbon-Luzerne county line, was named for a congressman who was born in Easton and eventually became chairman of the vile House Un-American Activities Committee, usually referred to as HUAC.

I'll get back to that, but the Jacksonville school has been in the news because of the success of a petition drive aimed at getting rid of that foul name. It's the name of a man who should have been hanged after the Civil War, as we later did with the criminals responsible for World War II atrocities.

After that school opened in 1959, not a single nonwhite was allowed to attend. This was when troublemakers were pushing school integration, and the rabid racists of the Duvall County Public School District waved Confederate battle flags and came up with an in-your-face retaliatory gesture.

They named it the Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, honoring the Confederate general whose troops murdered hundreds of black Union soldiers taken as prisoners of war after the 1864 Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee.

After the war, and after his political allies in Washington helped him get off the hook for his war crimes, Forrest founded and became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. (In "Forrest Gump," it's revealed that the title character was named after the grand wizard as some sort of sick joke.)

I've written about Nathan Forrest before, especially after I saw a glorious statue of him erected near Nashville — evidence that a century and a half after the slavery issue was settled, there remain many sick minds south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That Jacksonville school was forced to fully integrate by a 1971 federal court order, and now is more than half black. That resulted in demands for a name change, most recently expressed in a petition signed by more than 160,000 people. Also, the district's new superintendent was reported to be strongly in favor of changing the name to something more civilized.

The loudest opposition to that idea came from a KKK outfit based in Missouri. A letter to the school board from the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan demanded that the name be preserved to honor "this valiant man of honor."

The school board was to meet on the issue late Friday, but I did not get word on the results of that meeting by deadline time.

Personally, I don't see how a school official in Dixie who forces black children to honor the founder of the KKK is any worse than a teacher here who contaminates the minds of children by letting them believe the Francis E. Walter Dam stands for something honorable.

The dam was constructed in 1961 and it first was called the Bear Creek Dam, after a nearby tributary of the Lehigh, but in 1963, in response to mounting condemnation of McCarthyism and HUAC, reactionaries in Congress managed to get it renamed after a colleague, Lehigh Valley banker and lawyer Francis E. Walter, who died that year.

Before he took over HUAC, Walter was a co-author of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952, which he said was to keep communists out of America, but which actually was designed to put up barriers to any immigrants who were not descendants of white northern Europeans.

Walter and HUAC worked to deny people the right to be represented by lawyers, and managed to imprison them for contempt of Congress if they spoke up for philosophical, religious or other rights.

He helped advance blacklists, loyalty oaths and other measures that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people, just for criticizing what HUAC or Sen. Joe McCarthy were doing. Walter was replaced as HUAC chairman by his ally, Congressman Edwin Willis of Louisiana, who proclaimed the entire civil rights movement to be a communist plot.

To name a dam after Walter, to let innocent children see his name extolled, I wrote a few years ago, is "a shameful stain on the tapestry of American history."

The name of that school in Florida is an affront to anyone who opposes bigotry. The name of that dam in Pennsylvania is an affront to anyone who values decency and genuine American principles. Both names need to be changed.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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