The battle of the Memphis Belle

Memorial on  April 24th

UPDATE:  On the night this week’s Tribune went to press, person or persons unknown re-highlighted the “John 12:42” inscription, which had been blackened out a second time by the city (see above) with white paint.  Police have no suspects.

Secular City blacks out scripture reference  on monument. Twice.

The occasion was the dedication of a marble monument honoring both local World War II hero Robert Morgan, pilot of the famous B-17 bomber “Memphis Belle,” and a stunt Morgan pulled when he and the Belle were in Asheville for a war bond fundraiser: On leaving town, young Morgan, in an astonishing feat of low-level flying, guided the huge bomber nearly sideways between the two buildings on his way out of town, then wagged its wings in farewell.

The stunt passed into Asheville’s oral history, remembered firsthand only by a dwindling few of those who were present, and preserved in yellowing newspaper pages. Then, shortly after Morgan’s death in 2004, friends, local benefactors and historians formed a loosely organized group to raise funds for the erection of a monument to Morgan the man and to celebrate his flyover. On August 14, 2014, the anniversary of the 1943 event, the marker was unveiled as gigantic speakers played the pretaped roar of a passing B-17.

It was not until sometime later – some say last October – that a passersby noticed the tiny etched letters near the very base of the statue: “John 12:46.” The addition was apparently made after the monument was installed. The scripture was professionally etched, precisely centered and is executed in a type font closely resembling, but not the same as, that used for the monument’s main inscription.

Only the scripture citation was engraved. The verse itself reads, “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in the darkness.” Many who knew Morgan say they recognized it as his favorite passage of scripture, one that had sustained him not only in combat but during a difficult personal period. Morgan frequently referred to that verse, they say, as his comfort and inspiration during a distinguished military career and a long and successful private life.

However and whenever the citation came to be added, the Morgan Memorial Committee did not formally convey the monument to the city until January 16, 2015, by means of a letter signed by former city councilman Carl Mumpower, the committee’s chairman.

And a few weeks later – “Sometime in March,” according to Mumpower – the city blacked out “John 12:46”, using paint since the inscription was permanently etched into the base.

A few weeks after that, someone re-highlighted the inscription by carefully painting the blackout paint over with red.

A week later the city responded with a second coat of blackout.

“Viewpoint Discrimination?”

When news of the seesaw inscription battle finally reached the public last week, battle lines were immediately drawn between those who said the city had done the right thing by blacking out a message that was possibly in violation of the doctrine of separation of church and state, as well as a case of defacement and trespassing, and those who maintained that however the reference got there it was appropriate, violated no ordinance, was added before the marker was conveyed to the city and that disturbing it was an act of monument defacement.

The trespass angle was the one put forth by the city as grounds for considering the etching unlawful. Whoever did the deed, the city reasoned, would have had to be working on the courthouse lawn while applying the letters to the monument’s base – which is approximately four feet wide by three feet deep.

Brenda Mills, a city economic development specialist, with the city, staked out that position in an interview with WLOS-TV.

“You come on city property,” Mills said. “What if somebody had fallen? What if somebody had been injured? That’s an issue and then it doesn’t belong to you.”

Mills did not indicate who the marker would have belonged to, given that it was not conveyed to the city until January, several months after the etching was done.

Meanwhile numerous citizens immediately compared the city’s blacking out of the monument inscription to the displaying, also last fall, of a gigantic rainbow “gay pride” flag across the front of City Hall on the day it was announced that city magistrates would be allowed to perform same-sex marriages.

“We have a lot of people who come to Asheville and talk about sensitivity but who are very insensitive to our community’s traditional values,” Mumpower said. “That scripture represents one of those values,” Mumpower told WLOS.

Mumpower sees the comparison between the censoring of the etching and the display of the flag – which was put in place by city workers – as indicative of a double standard at work in city policy.

“They violated their own procedures on flying that flag and make all kinds of excuses and then make a big deal out of this,” Mumpower said.

A local attorney who requested anonymity called the blackout “a blatant case of viewpoint discrimination, especially when you juxtapose it to the flag thing.” The American Civil Liberties Union has defined “viewpoint discrimination” as “the term the Supreme Court has used to identify government laws, rules, or decisions that favor or disfavor one or more opinions on a particular controversy.” Proven viewpoint discrimination is a violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

So whodunit?

Actor Eric Stolz, who played Morgan in the movie “Memphis Belle” worked with and came to know him during the course of the picture’s production. “Bob was sort of a Jack-the-Lad when he was young,” Stolz said. And indeed, the young Bob Morgan had a reputation as a flashy hell-raiser whose persona dovetailed naturally with the Army Air Corps’ glamorous, devil-may-care image. But combat and the death of his mother, who committed suicide when faced with a terminal illness, wrought changes in him. Hence, his friends said, an increased spirituality and a particular fondness for John 12:46.

“Whoever carved that, or had it carved, must have known Bob very well,” another anonymous source said. Blacking out something that was so much a part of him is hurtful and insulting, however it got there.”

Full disclosure: The Managing Editor of the Tribune, David Morgan, is the nephew of Col. Robert Morgan, pilot of the Memphis Belle.

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