Since its inception in 2004, the Minuteman Project (MP), an immigration control operation, has recruited civilians to apprehend illegal immigrants along the Mexican border.
And while the organization—which drew nationwide coverage
earlier this month when pro-immigrant students at Columbia University rushed the stage during a speech by founder Jim Gilchrist—expected to draw the ire of many, it may not have counted on the opposition of certain citizens of Massachusetts, who are vigilantly patrolling the use of the moniker “Minuteman.”
Those critics consider the title sacred to the state’s colonial heritage.
“It does offend me,” said Carla Fortmann, who works at the historic Buckman Tavern in Lexington—the same tavern where the original minutemen were stationed on the eve of the American Revolution. “I understand how they might pick [the name], but vigilante might seem more appropriate. Or self-appointed posse. Or even bounty hunters.”
Fortmann’s feelings were hardly unique.
“I was and still am very disappointed with the use of the term ‘Minuteman’…when referring to the Minuteman Project,” wrote Mark Lamkin, a member of a group of local colonial reenactors, in an e-mail. “Actually I see no relationship between the colonial minuteman and the vigilante minuteman other than the adoption of the name. It definitely is exploitive [sic].”
Members of the Minuteman Project maintained that the group’s name was appropriate.
“Jim Gilchrist was able to take the ‘minuteman’ name and really it was a revival,” said Tim Bueler, MP’s spokesman. “He said that we are middle-class men and we are protecting our countrymen just like the minutemen did. I think he encompasses what the minutemen were and what they are today.”
But as Professor of History Walter Johnson noted, interpretations of the historical character of the minutemen have frequently tended to be illusory.
“The ‘minuteman’ image is…key to understanding a strain of extreme right and extreme white thought in the United States….a notion of insurgent, state- or locally based militias as legitimate political actors,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail. “This is the political vision that brought you Timothy McVeigh.”
Supporters of the original minutemen refused to take political stances.
“We don’t support any political party or anybody with some sort of political agenda or social agenda,” said Bill Poole of the Lexington Minute Men, a commemorative organization. “We are focused entirely on the past and respect for the past and the sacrifices that have been made.”
Political or not, the bottom line is that the title “minuteman” should not be used lightly, said Lexington resident Fortmann.
“I meet these people who come from all over. Some of them even get all choked up,” she said. “It means a lot to a lot of people.”
As for the controversy over how exactly the minutemen’s title should be used—that is not so easily resolved.
“It’s like a great painting–it’s like talking about what the Mona Lisa’s smiling about,” said Lou Sideris, chief of planning and communication at Minute Man National Historical Park. “Everyone’s going to filter it through their own beliefs. It's part of American folklore, and it always will be.”