Capitol Journal: Confederate names have no place on California schools
Most everyone by now agrees the Confederate flag should not be flown on public grounds. Why then is it OK to name a public school after the turncoat general whose army carried that flag in battle?
Answer: It’s not.
Pretty simple: The flag, for many, symbolizes slavery, treason and clear-cut racism. The general’s Rebel troops toted the flag while killing or wounding more than 160,000 U.S. soldiers.
Neither the flag nor the famous commander should be honored on public property, especially in California, which sided with the Union in the Civil War.
But whether this rises high enough in importance to warrant enacting a law is another question.
New state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) has introduced a bill to prohibit calling a public school, building, park or road anything Confederate.
The legislation states that the South’s secession from the United States “was rooted in the defense of slavery” and even now certain groups use Confederate symbols “to demean and offend whole segments of our society while sowing racial divisions.” Enshrining the names of Confederate political leaders and military officers, the bill continues, “is antithetical to California’s mission for racial equality.”
If the bill passes and is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, two elementary schools in Long Beach and San Diego would have to be renamed. They’re now named after Gen. Robert E. Lee, the most prominent face of the Confederacy.
Lee defected from the U.S. Army and wound up commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, which flew the now infamous stars-and-bars battle flag.
The distinguished and gentlemanly native Virginian may have been against slavery, once calling it “a moral and political evil.” But he wasn’t opposed enough to act against it.
After inheriting hundreds of slaves from his father-in-law, Lee set out to hire an overseer who, he wrote, should be “considerate and kind to the negroes, [but] firm and make them do their duty.” Lee once captured some runaways and had them jailed, then turned over to a slave trader.
So he may not exactly be the type we want our children to be looking up to as they exhibit school pride — a traitor to his country who fought to preserve slavery. But a very nice man, at least to white people.
Still, this bill is puny potatoes compared to real problems facing Sacramento: Inadequate water plumbing, beat-up highways, an unfriendly business climate, weak education and an outdated tax system.
“This is a small bill,” Glazer acknowledges. “I’m not trying to make a big deal of it. I didn’t put out a press release.”
Glazer didn’t take office until late May. A centrist who opposes transit worker strikes, he had to fight off heavy union opposition to win a special election. So far, he says, “I have voted for and against everybody. Nobody has been left unscathed.”
He entered the Senate a little late in the session to start pushing major legislation. But he was motivated by photos of suspected South Carolina church killer Dylann Storm Roof, who liked to pose with the Confederate battle flag. Roof allegedly gunned down nine African Americans at a Bible study.
Last year, the Legislature passed a law banning the sale of Confederate flags in the state Capitol gift shop. “I started thinking about cleaning up some other things,” Glazer says, “and using it as a teaching moment.”
He found there are five markers in California erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of the so-called Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway System. Davis was the sorry Confederate president.
Also, Stockton named a street after Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
And Fort Bragg on the north coast is named for Braxton Bragg, who commanded a U.S. Army outpost there before the Civil War, then defected to the Confederacy and became a high-ranking general.
Glazer’s bill wouldn’t force cities to change their names, but he has written the Fort Bragg mayor asking him to consider it. That’s not likely.
“They can have their conversation [in Fort Bragg] and we’ll be watching,” Glazer says. “Bragg, you know, had 105 slaves.”
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also owned slaves, of course. But they didn’t rebel against their country and fight to preserve slavery.
Glazer’s bill, SB 539, has strong bipartisan support from Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff of San Dimas.
Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, told me last week that no parent had asked for a name change, although civil rights leaders have.
“Nothing has been ruled out here,” he said. “We’ve changed names before.”
One Long Beach school carried the name of California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, an outspoken racist who tried to ban black people from the state and advocated exterminating Indians. Last year the school was renamed for Bobbie Smith, the district’s first African American board member. Nice touch.
In San Diego, the school district says it is “sensitive to the concerns” of local citizens who suddenly object to the Lee name. A change will be considered by the board, a spokeswoman says.
That school is 76% Latino and only 2.5% white. Surely there’s a more appropriate name than Robert E. Lee.
The best outcome would be for these schools to change the name voluntarily — and the state to help pay for it.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.