Current Affairs

A RECKONING

I learned recently from a member of St. John’s Church in Sacramento, California, that St. John’s Council formed a committee to propose and lead repentance and reconciliation programs following its decision to rename a fellowship hall from “Goethe Hall” to “The Gathering Place” and to end financial benefit from a long-standing bequest from C. M. Goethe (1875-1966). The church had delayed the decision to distance itself from the Goethe name for many years, primarily because Charles Matthias’ grandfather, Matthias Goethe, was its founder. St. John’s racial justice ministry helped the Congregation to learn about C. M. Goethe’s affiliation with the rightwing, white supremacist wing of the eugenics movement; to understand the Church’s obligation to acknowledge its relationship with Goethe; and, as a congregation claiming to live God’s Love in the world, to make amends for that affiliation.

The Church’s Committee on Repentance, Reconciliation, & Repair consulted my research on Goethe and the eugenics movement* and asked me to speak at the Church on May 22, 2022. This is the talk that I gave that day.

* Tony Platt, “Engaging The Past: Charles M. Goethe, American Eugenics, and Sacramento State University,” Social Justice 32, 2, 2005; Tony Platt with Cecilia O’Leary, Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial (Paradigm, 2006).

Thank you for the invitation to participate in your reckoning with the legacies of Charles Goethe. Thank you to the congregation for the privilege of inviting me into this conversation. Thank you to Pastors Frank Espergen, Amy Kienzle, and John Haugh for encouraging us to do justice to history. Thank you to the Committee on Repentance, Reconciliation, & Repair for charting a serious way forward, far beyond tokenism. And thanks to Phoebe DeMund for reading something I wrote about Goethe seventeen years ago and reaching out to me. All my work as an academic – professor at Berkeley, professor here at Sac State, and now a research fellow in Berkeley in the twilight of my career – has been committed to social justice, to doing as well as thinking, to trying to practice what I preach and teach, and to responding to the “call to life” issued by the Movement in the 1960s.

As an activist, I know that making real change is a long journey, so seventeen years is like yesterday. Consider the Civil Rights Movement: it was born in the Civil War in the 1860s, achieved the legal termination of white supremacy a hundred years later, and is still an unfinished struggle as witnessed by the legacies of segregation in housing and education, rollback of voting rights, anti-immigrant misanthropy, and the racist venom that culminated in last week’s massacre in Buffalo.

I commend you for taking on the legacies of Goethe in your church. It’s not an easy process given that it requires excavating your origins story and the narratives of your past and grappling with what it means for a place of community, fellowship, spirituality, respect, and godliness to be associated with a man who hated the majority of humanity.

Some communities are divided over how to address the legacies of founders and benefactors. The arguments go like this:

1 “He did good as well as bad.” At my university, Berkeley, an argument goes on about the legacies of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber who both prerserved many Native languages and also presided over a department that plundered Native grave sites and amassed without permission some 20,000 Native human remains. With Goethe, there is no such dilemma. He campaigned for forced sterilization of poor women and for ending immigration from Mexico and Asia; he was a leader in racial red-lining in Sacramento; he was a founding member of an organization that had close and mutually appreciative ties with racial scientists in Nazi Germany and that was the most important eugenics organization on the West Coast; he self-published his racist and sexist screeds because no publisher would publish them; he gave economic incentives to white students to procreate; he gave millions of dollars to California organizations that turned a blind eye to his well-publicized malevolence; his last charitable act was to send a donation to the Northern League, a European organization working to build “cooperation between all Nordic Peoples,”  predecessors to today’s white supremacists.

2. "He was a man of his times,” he spoke a common language and had no choices. This assumes that there was no debate about what he believed during his lifetime. There was in fact fierce public debate, and he made many choices, as did Sacramento. They both chose the side of inequality and injustice. In 1955, when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi and Rosa Parks struck to her principles and seat in Alabama, Cal State Sacramento awarded Goethe its first honorary degree in science. In 1962, when the Supreme Court ordered the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, the Sacramento branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a sundial and benches in the campus arboretum in memory of Goethe’s wife. In 1965, the year that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, Sac State named the new Science building after “Sacramento’s most remarkable citizen."

3. “What is past is past.” In the case of Goethe, I only wish that was true. His ideas and the eugenics movement in which he was an active participant has endured for generations and helped to shape economic and social policies and the way that we think about the world. Goethe and his colleagues, for example, were big fans of what today is known as “great replacement theory,” the idea that immigrants of color and American communities of color are swamping “Anglo-Saxons.”

4. “We can’t change the past.” Yet, we do it all the time personally in how we think about ourselves over a lifetime, how aging affects what is important to us, how we consider and re-consider our parents and ancestors, how we think about and re-think our religious and ethical values. In the same way, history, like memory, is always partial, always in motion, never rests in peace. History, according to historian Raphael Samuel, “is an argument about the past, as well as the record of it, and its terms are forever changing.” Witness how the terms of your conversation about Goethe are changing.

5. "It’s a slippery slope.” If we change our relationship with Goethe, so goes the argument, there is a danger of it becoming a slippery slope, speeding us towards endless investigations and debates. I think of these controversies as an opportunity to think through how we want to name ourselves and whom and what we want to honor. It’s an important and consequential responsibility. In the past, these decisions were made for the most part by unrepresentative elites. Now we have an opportunity to democratize the decisions. I welcome the slippery slope.

In conclusion, let me return to the name of your committee: Repentance, Reconciliation, & Repair.

The process you are involved in is going on all over the country and in many parts of the world: statues being removed from town squares, the names of formerly great men being removed from buildings, and debates about the pros and cons of this reckoning with the past. Here in California, there is a range of action and inaction, from the Huntington Library in San Marino where nothing has been done to address the legacies of Goethe’s colleagues in the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), an organization that congratulated Nazi Germany on its efforts to reduce society’s “weaklings”; and Berkeley where the University similarly has not yet confronted its eugenics past – its role in honoring two faculty members who were on the governing board of the HBF – or addressed its role in the manufacture and use of atomic weapons against at least 200,00 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; to Caltech where a concerted grassroots effort has successfully forced the university to address the legacies of Robert Millikan, one its founders, a Nobel-prize winning scientist and key member of the HBF; to the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena where the congregation not only faced the legacies of Millikan, one of its founders, but also took reparative action in the present to make amends for the past.

Given the title of your committee, you exemplify that, in the words of Josef Hayim Yerushalmi, “the antonym of forgetting is not remembering, but justice.” I commend you for the care that you are taking with your course of action, refusing to deal with Goethe by administrative fiat or simply by scrubbing his name from a building. The process you are going through – education, debate, and reflection, what I call a reckoning – is to me as important as the outcome because it reflects the seriousness of the issue, because it has implications far beyond Goethe, and because whatever decisions you make will be thought through and hopefully enduring. You will soon be ready to take on the third part of your Committee’s title: Repair and its close sister, Reparations.

What you are going through reminds me of what Yurok elder Walt Lara Sr. calls “a settling up” – a collaborative method of dealing with a Tribe’s internal arguments. It’s a way, he says, “to maintain balance with each other, the environment, and the spiritual energies, to live in harmony with the world.” I’m also reminded of what W. E. B. Du Bois said in 1903 about how the Sorrow Songs helped African Americans to keep going through the very worst of times. Your reckoning with Goethe is like a sorrow song that in the words of Du Bois “breathes a hope and a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”

To inherit the past provides an opportunity to significantly transform it.

I thank you for speaking justice to history and wish you well on your journey.


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