What’s in a school name?-Robert E. Lee is out

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.

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Sons of Confederate Veterans loses license plate legal battle

I posted about this almost four years ago, then updated on the story after readers and fellow bloggers alerted me to some pertinent details. Now, the controversy over the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) seeking to have a license plate made for their organization in Texas has finally been adjudicated and they are on the losing end.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (you can read the briefing here)that Texas may reject the SCV license plate on the grounds that license plate designs constitute government speech and does not violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Stephen Breyer, who authored the decision, as well as Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor. Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Scalia dissented, with Alito providing some biting criticism of the decision, writing, according to CNN, “the Court’s decision categorizes private speech as government speech and thus strips it of all First Amendment protection.”  He added that the ruling, “”establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that the government finds displeasing.”

What is interesting about this decision is how it goes against the general trend when cases involving the SCV and other states have gone to courts, with the SCV usually ending up as the victor. Personally, I will say that I am a bit concerned about the precedent that this may set regarding other organizations seeking to have license plates for their causes, but as I stated back when this story first flared in 2011, I believe that had the SCV compromised and sought to create a neutral plate with a soldier silhouette and commemorate the 150th anniversary, or Civil War veterans in general, the issue would have been moot.

The Confederate battle flag is a powerful symbol with a complex and divisive past, as evidenced by the tragic shootings in Charleston the other day. I will never deny someone from being proud of their Confederate soldier ancestor, as they fought a hard war for a cause they believed in, or other reasons they believed in as much as their Union counterparts. However, we live in a different era, where segments of our society have different feelings towards that flag and what it means to them.

Unfortunately, one cannot escape the reality that the flag symbolized an army fighting for a government established, in part, for the perpetuation of slavery. Further, it became a symbol of hate and oppression used by a minority of people to intimidate blacks, thus coloring the collective population of the South by the actions of a few. Not all Southerners are racists, just as not all Southerners owned slaves. However, the perceptions cast by the use of the flag and its history since the end of the war stand in contrast to its use by soldiers in the Confederate Army.

Now that the SCV has lost the battle in Texas, only time will tell as to how other states will respond regarding their already-issued SCV plates and the display of the Confederate battle flag in public. Confederate symbols will continue to elicit controversy, but this does not mean that they should be eliminated from our awareness, as they can be tools for educational purposes, whether presenting on Confederate soldiers, or the post-war history of the South, the good, bad, and ugly.

With that I will leave you with a poll and welcome any thoughts you would like to share, provided they are civil, regarding this case and the Confederate flag.

Update to Texas Confederate license plate controversy

Thanks to some of my intrepid readers, who followed up on this story and commented to my earlier post on the controversial proposed SCV license plate in the Lone Star State. Initial stories on the situation indicated opposition to the plate by prominent Democratic politicians in the state, which led me to believe that there might be more to this than moral opposition to the Confederate flag and Confederacy.

However, I learned from one commenter (hat tip to David Woodbury, blogger at of Battlefields and Bibliophiles) that Gov. Rick Perry expressed opposition to the plate as well. This definitely changed the situation for the future of the proposal, as he holds great sway in the state and on the commission that determined its fate, which contained several Perry appointees. This held true, as the commission rejected the plate proposal, choosing instead to honor the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, which is certainly an institution and group of soldiers worth honoring with a license plate. However, this issue is likely not dead, as SCV will likely sue to have the plates issued. The group has successfully litigated in other southern states before on the plate issue.

My thoughts on this would be for the commission to communicate to the SCV the option for a Civil War license plate that is neutral, commemorating appropriately the 150th anniversary of the war with the silhouette of a soldier and the wording of the anniversary and the war. It would allow citizens to take their own meaning from the plate and the proceeds could be directed to preservation of Civil War related items and land, which would hopefully satisfy the SCV.

Thoughts on the Texas Confederate license plate controversy

Recently, several legislators in Texas came out against a proposed license plate in Texas designed to denote a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans.Their opposition revolves around the organizational logo of SCV, which features the battle flag, and is used in the plate design. Keep in mind that our modern conception of the Confederate flag is actually the naval jack (you can see this in a 19th century engraving of the CSS Albemarle from the US Navy’s history website on Confederate vessels).

The SCV states that the proceeds from the plates will go to marking Confederate soldier graves, build monuments, and preserve artifacts. Texas considered the idea as we are beginning the 150th anniversary of the war, but the board that approves plate designs is deadlocked in a 4-4 tie, with another vote coming on Nov. 10. Several other states in the South have such plates and while attempts have been made to stop them, SCV has successfully sued and received approval.

Now, as a descendant of a Union veteran and a member of Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), I am wondering how many states now have or would adopt plates for our organization, as I would like to have one. I have no real problem with an SCV plate, so long as it is done in good taste, which looking at the design seems so. While Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee calls the flag a “symbol of intimidation”, it is an object and is only intimidating if used in that way and allowed to be intimidating. I do find it interesting that those speaking out against the plates seem to be only Democrats. What are their motivations for opposition beyond political disagreement?

While some aspects of the SCV do annoy me, they have the right to be recognized and share pride in their organization. I seriously doubt that too many people are going to pay that close of attention to an SCV license plate, as they should be focusing on the road. I hope other states will consider adopting some sort of commemorative plate for the 150th anniversary. What are your thoughts on this?