On today’s episode of the Ryan Cunningham Show on 1310 KNOX AM, the local talk radio station in Grand Forks, host Ryan Cunningham noted the changing of an elementary school’s name in Austin, Texas. The Austin Independent School District decided to rename the former Robert E. Lee Elementary in late April 2016 after concerns over Lee’s role in history were raised by parents and community members in the wake of the tragic Charleston, South Carolina church shooting. This led to a succession of governmental actions in several municipalities across the nation, but particularly in the South, from resolutions to removals of symbols and icons associated with the Confederacy, or Reconstruction.
Some of the more prominent ones included the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina state house grounds and the more recent removal of a statue related to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans on Confederate Memorial Day. That event related to Reconstruction and Southern resistance, specifically the White League, to that effort to remake the South post-Civil War.
The renaming of Lee Elementary took on a bit of controversy, as dozens of names were submitted, with several being tongue-in-cheek suggestions. Ultimately, the district voted to rename the school for Russell Lee, a well-known photographer. What is interesting is that there are still at least twenty-four elementary schools across the country named for General Lee, as well as at least sixteen high schools that bear his name in some way, but for how long?
While renaming schools do occasionally occur as time moves along and attitudes towards historical figures change (older readers may recall how many schools were renamed for JFK in the wake of his assassination), it is interesting that Confederate political and military leadership, as well as the symbols of the CSA, are under increased scrutiny after every incident of racial violence against African Americans by white perpetrators. I don’t see calls for renaming schools that bear prominent African American figures’ names in the wake of the violence perpetrated by those angry over treatment of black men by police officers, or protests led by Black Lives Matter. So, if we can accept that figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, etc. are not responsible for recent activities by black perpetrators who have killed cops and other innocent persons, why can we not also accept the same for the figures of the Confederacy?
Certainly, we can’t and should not deny that these men who sided with secession, the Confederate flag, and other symbols of that government have been used in the years since the war for racist purposes. However, Robert E. Lee is not responsible for the Charleston church shooting any more than Dr. King is for violence in urban neighborhoods.
Yes, Lee did fight against the United States, but he also did much to ensure a more peaceful post-war period during Reconstruction. Where Jefferson Davis wanted to see the army disband into small groups and wage guerrilla war against the Union, Lee surrendered his army and urged his troops to be good citizens and begin the healing of the nation. Yes, the government he fought for was committed to the preservation of slavery, and even its expansion, but this doesn’t take away from his historical importance.
Finally, if we eradicate the symbols of the Confederacy, or purge the names of their figures from our schools and other public places, how can we properly learn from the mistakes of the past that led to the Civil War? Consider that as we are now over 150 years removed from that conflict, it is all the more imperative for us to be aware of the Confederacy, as if it fades from our historical memory and consciousness, we may repeat some of those mistakes that led to war. No, this does not mean we will bring slavery back, but consider that the Civil War originated from deep divisions over politics in America that festered into such polarization that one region of the nation, rather than accept the results of a presidential election, chose to leave the Union. When I see the Resistance movement to Donald Trump and the Antifa movement, I am reminded of the southern fire eaters, who led the charge for secession.
Let’s remember Lee as a capable soldier, who had a distinguished career prior to the war, during the war, and played an important role in trying to heal the nation after the war. Let’s also not forget the racism and segregation that permeated the South, as well as the larger nation in the decades after the war. As Barbara Fields noted in the final episode of Ken Burns’ The Civil War there is still a chance to lose the war. If we hide the past and its ugliness for the sake of individual feelings, we risk not learning the lessons of the past and making the same mistakes, which could cause even more pain.