At last count, there were 22 elementary schools in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri named after the top Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
There’s a perverse logic to elementary schools in those states named after Lee. For more than a century, he was the South’s runaway hero and legendary icon. His superb battlefield generalship kept the Confederacy in play for four long and bloody years.
It also ensured 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 blacks.
The South and the nation certainly can thank Lee for much of that. But what does one make when one of those 22 schools that honor the horrific past and legacy that Lee represents carry his name that’s not in Alabama or Texas but Long Beach?
To have a school named after one whose military prowess bolstered southern slavery and Jim Crow segregation in a city that is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in California and the nation is shameful enough. But to have his name slapped on the school that has a significant number of students of color attending it is even more of an embarrassment to Long Beach.
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 Barack 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 statehouse and other public places or openly backed their continued display. The flag was their 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 that 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 the flag be scrapped.
However, dumping the Confederate flag in the historical scrap pile is an easy call. Erasing the name of one 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. 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 honor 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 a T-shirt.
That is why Long Beach school and city officials should be embarrassed at having a Robert E. Lee Elementary School on their books. That is why they should move speedily to take it off.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM Radio 1460 AM, Fridays at 9 a.m. and KPFK Radio 90.7 FM, Saturdays at 9 a.m.