Opinion: In defense of keeping Churchill’s name on school
A fuller look at prime minister's legacy
I am writing in response to the petition drive to change the name of Winston Churchill High School.
As a society, we are going through a process of finding and uprooting racism’s manifestations. Now it’s Winston Churchill’s turn to be put under the microscope.
Not all of his policies and statements would pass scrutiny in the 21st century. He was a product of the Victorian era. However, he was quite progressive for his day. It’s also fallacious to assume that Churchill’s views did not evolve between the turn of the 20th century and his death in 1965.
Churchill is a role model for students in many ways. He exhibited character, courage, principle and persistence, especially during the world’s darkest hours.
Perhaps, there is a generational issue here. Our fathers, for the most part, fought in WWII to end the greatest threat to democracy and civilization ever.
I’m from the WCHS Class of 1973. Those of us who graduated from Churchill in the ’60s and ’70s grew up in the shadow of World War II. The Allied victory and the role our parents played loomed large over our childhood.
Many of the people calling for removing his name were born much later. As a result, many younger graduates wanting to change the name take this hard-won victory for granted. Our freedom and democracy were saved. This alone merits the school being named after Churchill.
He inspired his nation and the world to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis. And, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he led us to victory. If we are never to forget the Holocaust and other atrocities of World War II, we must honor the people who had the courage and fortitude to stop it.
Had one of the two alternatives, Lord Halifax or First Viscount David Margesson, become prime minister of Great Britain, they would have negotiated a peace with Hitler. Consequently, the Nazis might have won, leading to the extermination of Jews, Romani (also known as gypsies) and gays, as well as millions of others. Other people would have been slaves.
As Winston Churchill said, standing up to this evil was our Finest Hour.
Churchill was also a noted writer and historian, earning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values,” according to the Nobel Prize website.
Few can claim accomplishments on the order of Winston Churchill. As a result, history will record Churchill as the 20th century’s greatest statesman.
Rather than change the name of the school, how about teaching about Churchill’s contributions, both positive and negative? Here are four ideas that could be implemented in the school, and in fact, could be used for the namesakes of other schools.
- A unit on Churchill should be taught in ninth-grade social studies, covering his life, his times and his positive contributions, but also his negative aspects.
- Incorporate material about Churchill’s life throughout the social studies and perhaps the English curriculum at the school.
- Hold a mandatory schoolwide assembly in which students can hear experts on Winston Churchill and have an opportunity to engage them with questions and discussion.
- Have students write an essay on Churchill’s life. Have the essays evaluated and recognize the student with the best essay.
Two allegations have been made against Churchill. The first is that he was a racist and the second is that he opposed Indian independence and precipitated a famine in Bengal in 1943.
Churchill did make comments about race that reflected the Victorian society in which he was raised.
However, actions speak louder than words.
We also need to distinguish between views he may have expressed in private from his views he expressed regarding public policy and governmental actions.
In many ways, he was quite progressive. Churchill was an early supporter of the rights of labor and supported the rights of workers to organize and strike. He strongly opposed the use of Chinese indentured laborers in South Africa.
According to “Churchill: A Life” by Martin Gilbert, as quoted on Wikipedia, Churchill was an early advocate of prison reform and workers’ social security.
He fought legislation to curb Jewish migration into Britain. He stated that the bill would appeal to “insular prejudice against foreigners, to racial prejudice against Jews, and to labour prejudice against competition.” These are not the words of a racist.
In fact, he expressed concern about the treatment of the black African population by European settlers, after the Zulus launched the Bambatha Rebellion in Natal in South Africa. He complained of Europeans’ “disgusting butchery of the natives,” according to author Gilbert, as quoted on Wikipedia.
The second allegation relates to how he treated India and Indians. Churchill opposed independence for India because he objected to the caste system, which relegated the majority of people to the role of “untouchables.”
Those who want to change the name point to the Bengal Famine of 1943, when three million people perished. According to “Gandhi and Churchill” author Arthur Herman in an interview with the International Churchill Society retrieved from www.winstonchurchill.org, “The idea that Churchill was in any way ‘responsible’ or ‘caused’ the Bengal famine is of course absurd.”
Herman continues: “The real cause was the fall of Burma to the Japanese, which cut off India’s main supply of rice imports when domestic sources fell short, which they did in Eastern Bengal after a devastating cyclone in mid-October 1942. It is true that Churchill opposed diverting food supplies and transports from other theaters to India to cover the shortfall: This was wartime.”
Also: “Churchill was concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe taking place there, and he pushed for whatever famine relief efforts India itself could provide; they simply weren’t adequate. Something like three million people died in Bengal and other parts of southern India as a result. We might even say that Churchill indirectly broke the Bengal famine by appointing as Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell, who mobilized the military to transport food and aid to the stricken regions (something that hadn’t occurred to anyone, apparently).”
Because of the sacrifices the Greatest Generation made here, in Great Britain and in other allied countries, so that we can be free today, and for his other extraordinary accomplishments, we will keep Winston Churchill as the name of our high school.
As Churchill might say, “We are Bulldogs, and we will never surrender our name, our identity, our heritage as a school! We are and always will be Winston Churchill High School!”
Winston Churchill High School alumnus Edward G. Marks now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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