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The purge of Robert C. Byrd’s name as that of a racist whose memory must be erased has begun. Will it continue?

Bethany College said Wednesday it has removed Byrd’s name from one of its buildings.

“The last few weeks, and well before the conversations and calls for change took hold, we recognized as a campus that the name of our Robert C. Byrd Health Center created divisiveness and pain for members of Bethany community, both past and present,” the college administration stated in a news release.

“Today, we formally and officially are removing the Byrd name from our Health Center to demonstrate Bethany College’s capacity to change, to listen, and to learn.”

Hmm. “To change, to listen, and to learn.” Bethany says it does that. Does it give the same courtesy to Byrd?

Apparently people at Bethany refuse to accept that people can change. Few sins are unforgivable. It’s up to each of us to decide what they are. As for me, Byrd’s former attitudes are not among them.

Judging people of the past by the attitudes of today means very few of us are redeemable.

Was Byrd redeemed? I prefer to think he was.

You see, I grew up around a lot of people whose attitudes at the time most readers today would consider to be racist. Of those who are still alive, some still are, but most aren’t as far as I know. People can change.

One huge problem with today’s discourse is that we have too many -isms and too many people who are -ists. Too many phobias and too many phobics. We are quick to place other people in categories, and when we do that, it’s easy to see them as enemies. As irredeemable. As a person whose opinions are not worth listening to. As a person who I can’t learn anything useful from.

I have friends and family on both sides of the many questions we debate today. Trying to argue with them is, as one person said, like trying to explain to a toddler what the color four smells like.

They’re not irredeemable. Many of them just have not had their Road to Damascus moment yet.

Bethany College is a private school. It can do whatever it wants. But should public buildings begin the process of removing Byrd’s name?

As of this moment, I would say no. Without proof that Byrd retained what people today would consider to be deeply held racist attitudes, removing Byrd’s name is not justified. If you want to remove his name, do it for other reasons. I have at least one nominee, if anyone wants it.

Photographer Ansel Adams used a zone system in his classic photos in which some areas were pure white and some were pure black, with nine shades of gray in between. Byrd was not pure evil or pure good. He was somewhere in between, and as with most of us, that shade of gray changed over time.

Accept the fact that people change, and judge them by how they ended their lives, not only by how they began them.

Jim Ross is development and opinion editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@hdmediallc.com.

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