Each year, two million visitors travel to the remote Black Hills of South Dakota and trek their way up to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Entering at the Avenue of Flags, they peer up at the 450,000 tons of stone carved into the august mountains. Most are awed at the architectural magnificence of the 60-foot visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
The faces chiseled into the stones celebrate champions who helped build the United States of America. They were carved by a man who celebrated the confederacy.
Gutzon Borglum was the visionary sculptor who crafted the presidential stones. Earlier in his life, he had earned recognition working on Stone Mountain in Georgia, where he had partnered with the Ku Klux Klan and Daughters of the Confederacy.
The presidential monument was casually named after Charles E. Rushmore, a white attorney from New York City, tasked with the job of reviewing titles for a growing mining company. He too, had no ties to the land or Sioux history.
When both men arrived to work on this architectural masterpiece, the land had already been designated as “Six Grandfathers Mountain,” so named to represent the Earth, the Sky, and the four directions the ridge faces — north, east, south and west.
The Lakota Indians, of course, had the right to so name the ridge. It was their rock and their land, granted to them by an 1868 treaty our American government chose to trample upon.
America signed many treaties with Native Americans. We never honored any of them. We also drafted a constitution that said all men were created equal, unless you were black. Then you were a slave.
On July 3, the 45th president of the United States came to celebrate Independence Day at Mount Rushmore. Slurring words he read off a teleprompter, he toughly promised to preserve and protect the monuments.
Listening under a majestic summer sky and soft breeze, the nearly all-white crowd generously applauded. In this sea of privilege and supremacy, the commander in chief must have been happy.
A noble president could have held a moment of silence for those who have lost their lives in this pandemic, over 135,000 Americans. He could have united our spirit, nationalized our effort, globalized our response. He could have said something about the massacre of the Sioux in 1890 at Wounded Knee last week, too. It did not happen.
Lost in the evening’s summer breeze was the true legacy and history of Mount Rushmore. It does not belong to white Americans from New York City. It does not belong to architects who found friends with Ku Klux Klan members.
Mount Rushmore belongs to the Lakota Indians of the Sioux Tribe, no matter what names white Americans give it. It is their flag that should be planted in those mountains.
In the first year of law school, 45 years ago on Long Island in New York, I learned that you cannot get a good title to stolen property. The faces of our presidents chiseled in those rocks can stand for another century. It won’t alter one iota the historical injustice about how they got there.
The Lakota Indians have never given up their hold on the mountain ridge. It was in August of 1970 that a group of activists took over Mount Rushmore and held it for months, temporarily renaming it “Crazy Horse Mountain.” It was their Stonewall.
I don’t expect you to remember, but after Martin Luther King was slain in 1968, American cities erupted in protest and flames. A city of tents was established on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was named “Resurrection City.”
A year later, in 1969, angered over years of brutality and abuse, gays gathered up against New York City police in a place called the Stonewall Inn. 50 years later, we still celebrate that day. At the same time, we still must go to the courts to protect our rights.
In our world of future shock, we forget what happened last year, let alone a half-century ago. A hundred years ago, America overcame a pandemic as well. The country will survive this one too.
Life as we know it will never be lived again as we knew it. Somehow, we will push forward and persevere. Today’s days are as difficult as they come, but our forefathers only guaranteed us the right to pursue happiness. They did not guarantee the same. That’s on us. If you want a helping hand, look at the end of your own arm.
Only in a country as strong as ours can you wage a war for social justice against racial equality while challenging a lawless president and worldwide pandemic. Enjoy the ride. We are all on the clock.
Our forefathers were flawed and imperfect men, many with many flaws. Donald Trump is just another corrupt leader who carries that rich tradition forward. We elect them again and again. But beware, Mr. Trump. We also overthrow kings, we don’t crown them.
When our forefathers crafted the Declaration of Independence and our constitution, our founders left out women. They treated blacks as property; as slaves. They trampled on treaties, and ignored the working poor. Forget about gays or transgender persons. Deviant perverts, they were.
Our nation, our courts, our laws, and our people have not always lived up to the words we placed on parchment over two hundred years ago, but the struggle continues. Somehow, we still wound up with Yosemite Park, the Pacific Ocean, Hostess Cup Cakes, and a Walmart on every corner. Keep the faith.
We have a ways to go before we get there. There is a Mount Rushmore for you to build, one where everyone gets a place at the table and a seat in the crowd.