Civil Discourse in the Heart of Change, Continuity, and the Confederacy
Among the participants on the Common Ground panel were Admiral Michelle Howard, former vice chief of naval operations and commander of naval forces in Europe and Africa for the U.S. Navy, who chaired the Naming Commission. Visiting Professor of History at Hamilton and Executive Director of Common Ground Ty Seidule served in the Army for 36 years, taught history at West Point for two decades, and was vice chair of the commission. The Hon. Lawrence Guzman Romo has more than 40 years of federal service, including directing the Selective Service System during the Obama administration, and Jerry Buchanan, who retired as a sergeant in the Air Force, is a civic leader in Oklahoma and formerly chaired the Tulsa County Republican Party. The event was moderated by Connor Williams, lead historian for the commission and a member of the departments of history and African American studies at Yale University.
Starting in 2021, the Naming Commission was given $2 million and three years to implement members’ vision. Their successes speak for themselves: the commission renamed nine major army installations to honor American heroes and values, and as of Jan. 1, 2024, more than 1,000 other assets commemorating the Confederacy have been removed, modified, or replaced.
Howard opened the discussion by sharing the challenges she faced and the strategies she applied to facilitate communication. She remarked on her penchant for micromanaging, though honesty stood out as her guiding principle. “Good policymaking is always, always grounded in truth,” she stated. She knew that the commission’s first customer was Congress, then affected communities, and only finally the commission and the consciences of its members.
Williams then asked Buchanan about his experiences as a Republican dealing with more conservative colleagues. Buchanan admitted that many of his friends did not view the initiative favorably, but he recognized the value of giving communities ownership of the process and a voice in the situation. Seidule’s approach, in contrast, was that of a historian. “Facts don’t often change peoples’ minds but stories do,” he said.
All five panelists emphasized organization and outreach. After electing Howard director, the Naming Commission quickly established a site for soliciting national names and began conducting local visits with representatives from both sides of the aisle. Once they got the word out, they listened — but never sat back. Besides maintaining their day jobs, the panelists offered support to local banks, transportation offices, even laundromats that would need to change their names to reflect the commission’s work. All in all, they sorted through more than 33,000 suggestions, regarding which Howard quipped, “If you’re among the nine people who suggested Britney Spears, thank you, but she didn’t serve in the military.”
The Naming Commission selected 90 names to whittle down to nine. In their choices, they sought to maximize diversity, respect the history of each site, and celebrate the nation’s future. “This list could look 80 other ways,” Connor acknowledged. Yet each decision moved the panelists in their own ways. Howard passionately remembered Hal Moore, who retired as a lieutenant general after 32 years of active service, and his wife, Julia Moore, who campaigned for changes in Army policy and led many military community support organizations. The inspirations for Fort Moore, the couple fought for the United States both on the battlefield and at home. In turn, Buchanan recalled one naming ceremony at which an entire Choctaw council performed a dance of honor. “The thing they had common,” he said, “was joy.”
During the Q&A session, one audience member revisited the art of compromise. Buchanan praised two of his colleagues for reaching across the table despite sitting on opposite sides of the aisle. Howard reminded attendees to continue difficult conversations, to which Buchanan noted, “Congress could learn from this commission. It’s about civil discourse.”
Next, a student wondered about the commission’s message to the American public. “This is about the values of our country. This list is not about diversity,” Howard declared.
The panelists conveyed their hopes for Congress and communities alike. Seidule proposed investing local communities with the power to rename sites of their choosing, Buchanan stressed cultivating mutual understanding and civil discourse, and Romo advocated for more nuanced public education. Howard concluded, “If we’re not willing to talk about it, people can’t learn. Change rests on the willingness of all of us to serve the common good.”
All event photos by Nancy L. Ford.
The College thanks Mary Helen and Robert Morris ’76, P’16,’17; Eve Niquette and Charles Pohl, P’20,’25; and Lori and David Hess ’77 for their generous support of Common Ground.
Expand Your Perspectives
Common Ground is Hamilton’s multi-format program that helps prepare students for active citizenship. Designed to explore cross-boundary political thought and complex social issues, Common Ground brings respected thought leaders to Hamilton to participate in small classroom dialogues and large event discussions.