Preserving the Permanent

“We mistakenly look for permanent victories, political and cultural, and when they do not come, we despair. We seem not to realize that it is not permanent victories that we should seek but rather the preservation of ‘the permanent things,’ which is victory enough.” Stephen M. Klugewicz

It was a movie I watched with my children again and again. Glory (1989) told the story of the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment, the first Union unit comprised of African-American troops.

White officers led the unit, the government believing it must be so.

Maybe it was the supervision of white officers that sparked the vandalism of the regiment’s monument recently. Perhaps it was that the memorial depicts white officers mounted on horses and men of color walking. Nevermind that white enlisted men also walked while officers rode.

I thought the movie was valuable to show history and virtue to my children. Robert Gould Shaw was the commanding officer. His parents were notable abolitionists in Massachusetts.

Shaw was 25 years old when he took command of the regiment.

He told the men that the Confederacy had promised to execute any black man who took up arms against them.

They fought on anyway.

When they learned that black soldiers would be paid less than white ones, “the entire regiment–soldiers and officers alike–refused to accept their wages until black and white soldiers earned equal pay for equal work. This did not happen until the war was almost over.”

Yet they fought on anyway.

That is only some of the truth the movie presented.

One scene depicts a probably fictionalized conversation between Shaw and an enlisted man, Trip, (played by Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington, respectively. Washington would earn an Oscar for his role.)

Trip refuses to carry the company flag asserting that things won’t change for his people after the war.

“Aint’ nobody clean. It’d be nice to get clean.” He thought, maybe, fighting would wash him.

That scene always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. But Trip was right. All was not fixed and clean once the war ended–even though the Union won.

My favorite scene comes the night before the movie’s culminating battle. The black troops hold a prayer meeting. A sergeant played by Morgan Freeman asks God that, if their fate is to die in battle, to let their “folks” left behind in bondage “know that we died facin’ the enemy. We want ’em to know that we went down standin’ up among those who are standin’ up fightin’ our oppression.”

Shaw led his men into battle. He died alongside them. He was buried in a mass grave with them.

There was no distinction between white and black in death. The Confederate commander thought he was insulting Shaw by having him buried that way.

But “Shaw’s parents replied that there could be ‘no holier place’ to be buried than ‘surrounded by…brave and devoted soldiers.’”

I wanted my children to carry lessons from this piece of history with them into adulthood.

I wanted them to learn about virtue in action. About justice. About love for humanity that pushes us to sacrifice. About the idea that such sacrifice for a great cause is heroic.

For those are the permanent things. Living out virtue to inspire more of it.

No matter how many Hitlers, Stalins, or Maos, there will always be those who live fighting evil, who die standing up to it. There will be heroic acts that leave permanent marks, if we don’t lose them, erase them, forget to tell those who come after us about them.

Today the words ring loudly, “Ain’t nobody clean.”

A question remains: Will we wipe out the past and erase our memory of heroes, those who fought to become clean by freeing others?

Eliminating the past won’t make us clean.

It will only mean we’ve lost the permanent things–the history that shows us truth, justice, and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

We must stand up for the permanent.

Photo Credit: Streets of Salem

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

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24 Replies to “Preserving the Permanent”

    1. All of history is a mixture of good and bad because humans are sinful. We will not avoid the bad if we don’t know about it. Thanks, Melissa. God bless!

      1. That is a great movie that depicts a portion of our history. Our monuments stand as memorials to men who fought and died and for us to remember why. Destroying them does not erase events. Thanks for this inspiring post.

  1. The movie Glory was one we raised our kids on, too. We also felt it was important for them to know and to aspire to as people of integrity and equality and justice. As a result, our kids are activists, voices in their fields, invested in helping others.

    This truth is significant: “There will always be those who live fighting evil, who die standing up to it. There will be heroic acts that leave permanent marks, if we don’t lose them, erase them, forget to tell those who come after us about them.”

    These we must hold up permanently for future generations to see and to then model. You’re so right!

    1. Thank you, Melinda. Kids just don’t know enough history today to be able to apply knowledge to what they see–i.e. statues and memorials. A very sad state of affairs. God bless!

  2. I believe the anger goes far beyond statues, stemming from centuries of being treated as less- than. Most of those protesting, I’ve found, are seeking peaceful solutions to systemic racism. Most seek to reform, not defund, the police. I also see whites seeking to understand our black and brown brothers and sisters at levels I’ve not seen in my lifetime. I have hope that we will come together and actuate King’s dream.

    1. I hope for the dream as well, Candice. The peaceful seek peace. But the violent seek the erasure of our history. Understanding history is what will bring the dream to fruition. Thanks and God bless!

  3. I will check out the movie. I do not remember seeing it. It sounds insightful, like your words. Thanks for sharing

  4. Nancy, it’s been years since I watched the movie. So I had forgotten what made it special and powerful. I love the idea to preserve and stand up for permanent things.

  5. Another interesting article, Nancy. It saddens me to see some monuments destroyed. The sacrifice of blood, sweat, and tears should never be diminished or cheapened by such destruction. I’m amazed at the stories of black soldiers who choose to suffer prejudice in addition to what normally comes with battle. Such strength. Even that is diminished sometimes with the need for some to make history racially correct.

  6. As a Canadian I am observing all that is happening and unfolding in the States. Although we do not have exactly the same issues, there is unrest in Canada as well. Many groups, including Blacks, Aboriginals, Asians, are expressing a legitimate need for their stories and histories and perspectives to be told. It is so interesting how we can all see experiences and history through different eyes because of the individual and collective journeys we have had to walk. My goal is to sit at the their tables, and be willing to hear and listen to each perspective, so that I can grow in understanding, compassion, and learn how to better support others. And I pray that I can help lead our family and friends and community in this better way.

    1. Thank you, Anne. One of the aspects of the movie I best love is the way Shaw gets a clear picture of what the experience was for the African-Americans around him. Great input from up north. God bless!

  7. I have never seen that movie, but I plan to, now. I know it’ll be a great lesson for our family. Thanks, Nancy.

  8. A powerful piece of truth and wisdom. I remember the movie Glory, but I didn’t remember all the details you shared. Thank you for sharing that even in his death, the parents of Robert Shaw said there was no holier place for him to be buried. We are a sinful people and our history is strewn with the evil and hatred of these sinful hearts. Yet may we not forget all the small acts of truth and courage along way. For God still redeems, any who will turn to Him. That is the permanent.

  9. Nancy, this is such a needed article in times like we are living. I am motivated to watch the movie because of what you have written. You taught your children wonderful lessons about loving humanity. Thank you for sharing!

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