Monday, October 3, 2022

Earl Ofari Hutchinson: Why Are So Many Schools Still Named Robert E. Lee?

robert e lee
Confederate general Robert E. Lee

*At last count there were twenty-two elementary schools in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and, of all places in Long Beach and San Diego, California named after the top Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The even bigger irony and insult is that a significant number of minority students attend some of these schools. The school in Long Beach, California, for instance, is in a city that’s one of the most ethnically diverse cities in California. To have a school there named after one whose military prowess bolstered Southern slavery and Jim Crow should be cause for embarrassment.

But there’s a perverse logic to elementary schools in those states named after Lee. For more than a century he was the South’s run-away hero and legendary icon. His superb battlefield generalship kept the Confederacy in play for four long and bloody years.

It also insured four more years of brutal bondage for millions of African-Americans and a century after that of vicious, ruthless, and unrelenting terror, murder, pillage, Apartheid like segregation, grinding poverty, and gaping racial disparities in health, education, and the criminal justice system for many blacks. The South and the nation certainly can thank Lee for much of that.

The issue of erasing the name of the South’s most infamous general from an elementary school can’t be separated from the ongoing battle to scrap the Confederate flag from statehouses, the sale of the flag and other Confederacy related items from major retail outlets, and the continued glorification of the South’s treasonous act of rebellion and defiance of the Constitution.  The flag was always much more than a symbol of a dead, archaic, and disgraceful past in American history. It has been a rallying point for the conservative assault on affirmative action, voting rights protections, and the expansion of civil rights laws. It was no accident that the Confederate flag was proudly and defiantly waved at Tea Party marches, protests and rallies ripping President Obama during the first two years of his administration. It is also no accident that GOP political leaders for years maintained either a stony silence on the removal of the flag and other Confederate monuments from statehouses and other public places or openly backed their continued display. The flag was their handy symbol in their rant against an alleged wildly overreaching, tax and spend federal government that eroded states rights and personal freedoms.

The shock of the Charleston massacre, and the recognition in a looming presidential election year that the GOP has almost no appeal to the overwhelming majority of African-American, Hispanic, gay, youth, and younger women voters forced GOP leaders to finally get off the dime and join the chorus demanding a scrap of the flag. However, dumping the Confederate flag in the historical junk pile is an easy call. Erasing the name of American’s history’s most venerated generals from a school is an entirely different matter.

Let’s look at why and in the process what makes a fight to remove Lee’s name from a school imperative. The name Robert E. Lee on a school is a tacit recognition of and tribute to an individual who fought to uphold slavery. Yet, teachers and school administrators at such a school are duty bound to benevolently cite Lee as an American patriot and a man who represents the highest ideals of American history and values to generations of students at the school. There will be no effort to include in Lee’s record the horrors of slavery, his towering role in the patented treasonous secession of the South, and the terrible bloodshed and suffering that millions of Americans suffered as a result of the South’s assault on human values. To say that Lee gets a pass from his big role in that part of American history is an understatement.

School officials in the Deep South knew that slapping Lee’s name on an elementary school did much more than just idolize their hero. It also guaranteed that future generations of students who attend a school named in honor of Lee would also honor him and the rose colored historical depiction of him. The South’s tortured history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and conservative reaction against civil rights and protections would be brush stroked from their education about Lee and the South. The name of Lee on a school has far more dangerous consequences than waving a flag or slapping it as an emblem on tee shirt. This is why school and city officials in the South, and especially the North, should be embarrassed at having a Robert E. Lee elementary school on their books. They should move speedily to take it off.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. His forthcoming book is: From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press)

earl ofari hutchinson
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.

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