Special to FolkWorks

[EDITORS NOTE: This article addresses a controversial subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors. We welcome your opinions.]

By Ross Altman, PhD

Mt. RushmoreCary Grant and Eve Marie Saint climbed all over Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest—before they wound up on Lincoln’s nose. British director Alfred Hitchcock knew what it symbolized—America herself—and the foreign spy (portrayed by James Mason) who was trying to destroy her. He couldn’t have picked a better symbol to represent the ideals of our democracy—“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—“ “Of the people, by the people and for the people.” And now, one by one, we are seeing every one of our sacred symbols toppled and trashed.

And I’m not talking about the rash of Confederate monuments and flags, such as have just been replaced finally and at long last in the Mississippi State flag. We’re not talking about Robert E. Lee, who may still belong in a museum, but not on public display in the town square. In short, we are not talking about ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Along these lines, my editors Steve and Leda Shapiro sent me a referral to two books worth reading, evidence that Howard Zinn’s legacy is in capable hands.  “If you’re are interested both Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong  and Lies Across America by James Loewen are books that delve into the history behind these revered figures. In particular, the latter book focuses on historical markers and museums across the United States, arguing that every historic site is "a tale of two eras": the one from when the event happened and the one from when the event was commemorated.” (Shapiro)

With this in mind, let me continue: In New York City, the new “Commission on Racial Justice and Reconciliation” will examine statues of historical figures in the city -- including Washington and Jefferson -- and consider removing them, The New York Post reported.

In a park in downtown Decatur, GA., a Jefferson statue that is privately owned will be officially removed, according to a protest organizer, Decaturish reported.

Dr. Douglas Bradburn, president and CEO of George Washington's Mount Vernon, the president's historic home in Northern Virginia, said in a statement last week, “Without George Washington, there would be no United States of America; there would be no Constitution, which allows the freedom of speech, assembly, and protest, as well as the separation of church from state -- and without Washington we would not have civilian-led military.”

He added, “If we fail to honor George Washington, because we understand him only as a slave owner, we will lose the story of the United States, for it will have no beginning and very little direction,” according to Just the News.

How we remember our heroes—even our former heroes—says more about us than about them—and none more so than Washington. My President of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—Carl Oglesby—taught me what George Washington stood for and why he still matters, Presidents of SDS served for a one-year term to prevent the entrenched concentration of power in a few hands, which was one of the things SDS had first organized to challenge in the United States. But Carl was so popular, and had presided over such an amazing expansion of SDS across the country because of his personal charisma as both a writer and a speaker, that no one wanted to let him go.

There was a clear consensus to suspend the rules of our organization and make him president for another term. In effect, he was being asked, like Caesar, to pick up the crown and put it on. And had he done so, he would have been reelected by acclamation. Carl refused. But it was the way he refused that has endeared him to me throughout the years.

When he saw the way the tide was moving and that he was about to be swept up in it, he suddenly jumped up on the dining room table (we were meeting in the cafeteria of a local college) and gave us all a history lesson. He told us a story about George Washington, and how eight years after our republic was founded and he had served two terms as the first president, he was offered the opportunity to be made “president for life” by the first U.S. Congress, which did not want to turn the country over to lesser hands.

Washington thanked them for the offer and then reminded them that they had just fought a revolution to escape from one monarchy. As much as he felt honored by their trust, he said if we are going to have a republic in the United States, we had better start right now and get onto the business of electing a new president. He was going home to Mt. Vernon.

After Carl told that story he didn’t have to connect the dots— everyone in the hall knew it was time to let him go, that our struggle for participatory democracy transcended any one leader, and that SDS would continue to thrive without him as president. That moment was to me the single most moving event I would witness as a member of SDS for five years — watching Carl Oglesby walk away from power, and leave SDS in the hands of a new generation of leaders.

To this day he remains my political hero, and because of Carl I fell in love with history. He made me see that history was not the past — it has enduring relevance. The second figure on Mt. Rushmore is Thomas Jefferson—the third President of the United States. I wrote a song about him a while back, which captures both his greatness and his flaws.

Jefferson’s Cemetery (By Ross Altman)

“All men are created equal,”
That’s what the man said
Well they may be equal in some things
But they sure ain’t equal in bed
He’s got three thousand living descendants
From here to Monticello
Now everyone knows Thomas Jefferson
Was Sally Hemings’ fellow.

The man that wrote the Declaration
Wasn’t above miscegenation
The situation on that plantation
Took two hundred years to prove
That’s why I want to be buried
In Jefferson’s cemetery
They say that there’s no room for me
Then tell somebody to move.

“They’re endowed by their creator”
Oh I like the sound of that
‘Cause Thomas Jefferson created me
If not I’ll eat my hat
They proved it with some DNA
That they took to Oxford U
It’s amazing what two hundred years
Of scientific progress can do. (Ch.)

“With certain inalienable rights”
Oh that rolls right off the tongue
‘Cause Eston Hemings Jefferson
Was Thomas Jefferson’s son
Now you just keep climbing
Right up our family tree
Skip about ten generations
And you come right up to me. (Ch.)

“That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
Don’t them words sound mighty fine
‘Cause white and black are a one-way track
You can take it to the end of the line
Our founding father loved his slave—
I’ll take that one, right next to his grave—
‘Cause we’re all one big family
In the land of the free and home of the brave. (Final Chorus.)

The third figure on Mt. Rushmore is Theodore Roosevelt. “A prominent statue of Theodore Roosevelt will be removed from the entrance of The American Museum of Natural History in New York City after years of objections that it symbolizes colonial expansion and racial discrimination,” officials including Mayor Bill de Blasio announced.

The bronze statue that has stood at the museum’s Central Park West entrance since 1940, as the New York Times reported, depicted Roosevelt on horseback with a Native American man and an African man standing next to the horse.

“The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior,” de Blasio announced Sunday in a written statement. “It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.” Consider my song about Thomas Paine and Roosevelt to realize the Mayor’s shortsightedness.

Tom Paine (By Ross Altman)

The father of our country, the author of the Declaration
They didn’t start this nation—they were much too sane
No, the man who bellied up to the bar with a ten-penny pamphlet and a victory cigar
And said, “Boys, I think we can win this war,” was Tom Paine.
“That dirty little atheist,” Teddy Roosevelt called him
Who had the nerve to scandalize his name
Well, excuse me, Mr. President, but who put you on Mt. Rushmore
Who staked out freedom’s claim, if not Tom Paine.

Chorus: You should have gotten down on your knees
And blessed the day he was born
The author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man
All the founding fathers stood on Tom Paine’s shoulders
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” he began.

December 19, 1776—Tom Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls” said in American Crisis.

Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt—add the 16th President that Trump recently called “questionable,” Abraham Lincoln, and there you have it—the entire Mount Rushmore. Old Abe stands tall in my following song:

Tall, Dark and Ugly (By Ross Altman)

If you’re looking for romantic heroes
He never would have made it today
He could split a rail, he could tell a tale
He was common as the clay
His face was so unappealing
He covered it over with hair
His voice was high and thin as a reed
He had a melancholy air
He looked something like a scarecrow
Not the stuff of which heroes are made
But he held this country together

And they called him “Honest Abe.”

Chorus: He was tall, dark and ugly
But the truth came out of his mouth
He saved the union and he freed the slave
In the war between north and south.

In a Pennsylvania town
No bigger than a postage-stamp
He spoke on the blood-soaked battlefield
His words lit a shining lamp
After Pickett’s charge and Lee’s retreat
He spoke of freedom’s new birth
So that government of the people, by the people, for the people
Shall not perish from the earth
The papers agreed with Lincoln
Who reported what he had to say
The world will little note nor long remember
The Gettysburg Address that day. (Ch.)

Tramping through New Hampshire
Come the presidential candidates
Not a one of them could have held his hat
In the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
They counted him out right then and there
‘Cause he took an unpopular stand
Saying slavery shouldn’t be extended
In the territories of the land
Douglas, the consummate politician,
Said “Slavery’s neither right or wrong,”
He measured his words like they do today
Old Abe just spoke right on.

Just four days after the end of the war
He went out to see a play
And John Wilkes Booth the actor
Stole his life away
With his flowing mustache and aquiline nose
He was everything Lincoln was not
A dashing southern gentleman
Who vowed that he must be shot
“When Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloomed”
The nation mourned his fall
Who told us once “with malice toward none
And charity towards all.” (Final Chorus)

Without Washington and Jefferson—and America’s original sin they represent—how would we fully appreciate The Great Emancipator—who finally abolished slavery?  And by the way, before the Civil War ended he also signed into law the creation of the very first National Park in Yosemite (California). And without Theodore Roosevelt—and the Progressive Movement he embodied—including the National Forest Service he created and the revolutionary idea for all that followed, how would we fully appreciate the impulse towards conservation and protecting the environment which we owe to T.R.?

We need all four of them on Mt. Rushmore.  That’s where they belong—sins and all. Don’t start dismantling our national shrine. The master of suspense would never allow it.

Like Kendall (Eve Marie Saint) we are hanging on by our fingertips on the mountain top, but Thornhill (Cary Grant) reaches down to pull her up, “at which point the scene cuts to him pulling her—now the new Mrs. Thornhill—into the upper berth of a train. The train then enters a tunnel.” We can only hope this real-life movie ends as well as North by Northwest.

*Mount Rushmore National Memorial is centered on a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills in Keystone, South Dakota, United States. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum created the sculpture's design and oversaw the project's execution from 1927 to 1941 with the help of his son Lincoln Borglum. (Wikipedia)

And for those who still object to a monument depicting four white men, let me encourage you to visit the one standing just 17 miles away—on Thunderhead Mountain—of Crazy Horse—an even larger monument of the famed Oglala Sioux warrior whose heart was buried at Wounded Knee, astride his noble horse. It was commissioned in 1948 by Lakota elder Standing Bear to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who was working for Mr. Borglum on Mount Rushmore, still decades from completion.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club (meeting on Zoom July 4th); Ross writes for FolkWorks and can be contacted: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.