To some people, even 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee remains a symbol of honor, chivalry and courage; his memory conjures the Old South, a lost cause and a more romantic era. That’s why his name remains on schools, highways and monuments across the country, including public elementary schools in Long Beach and San Diego.
But it’s time to be done with the romance of that misremembered era. Certainly, Lee had his strengths — few men are purely good or evil, and there is even some evidence that he personally opposed slavery. But ultimately, the general will be remembered primarily as the protector of that repugnant institution, the military leader of the insurrection against the United States government whose aim was to defend and perpetuate a slaveholder’s republic.
In the wake of the Charleston, S.C., church shootings, community members in Long Beach and San Diego are lobbying to rename their schools. They have our support. School officials say they are open to suggestions but that any name change would be part of a comprehensive community engagement process.
Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that Long Beach chose in 1898 to honor Lee with a new elementary school. California had become a state just a decade before the start of the Civil War and was ambivalent about the issues undergirding the conflict. Before and after the war, Southerners moved west and helped develop the new state’s identity. One was Peter Burnett, California’s first civilian governor, an open racist. When he was a legislator in Oregon, Burnett proposed that the state expel all of the freed slaves who lived there.
Happily, Burnett’s ilk no longer control California. The discrimination against nonwhites that was acceptable 117 years ago is now against the law. The Anglo majority is now a minority, and neither Burnett nor Lee holds up so well as a role model to grade school kids. Long Beach school officials last year dropped Burnett’s name from an elementary school and replaced it with one that is more meaningful to 21st century students: Bobbie Smith, the first African American to sit on the Long Beach Unified School District board.
Critics of name changing will characterize this as a politically correct scrubbing of history to conform to modern interpretations of good and evil. To an extent, those arguments are correct. If it’s Gen. Lee today, it could be a slaveholder like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson next year, and after that, who knows? Few historical figures look good through a modern filter. But there’s a categorical difference between, say, Jefferson, who has never been honored for his slaveholding, and Lee, who led an army into battle to defend the proposition that white people should be allowed to buy and sell black people. It’s time to remove his name from California schools.