Trump notwithstanding, how we took Lee down
In June 2015, a friend casually asked me whether or not I knew about the elementary school named after Robert E. Lee. I said I knew that there were lots of schools in the South named after the famed Confederate general, and that there were moves from time to time in some of the school districts on the part of black parents and activists to have the Lee name exorcised from a school.
No, he said, he wasn’t talking about some school named Lee in the South, but one in Long Beach, California, literally a few miles from my house. I laughed, and said, “That’s an impossibility. Surely, you’re joking!” Long Beach, a bedroom city that abuts Los Angeles, is one of the most ethnically-diverse cities in the country, with a sizable African American population. That includes many African Americans in the Long Beach schools.
However, after a quick check I found that a school named Robert E. Lee in Long Beach was no joke. After talking with other residents, including relatives, who lived in Long Beach, they confirmed that the Lee Elementary School was well-established and well-known to them and nearly everyone else in Long Beach. I immediately contacted school officials and members of the Long Beach school board with a quick primer on Lee, his monumental role in waging war to preserve slavery and the fact that, as a secessionist general, he was anything but a patriot. He was a traitor to and betrayer of the Constitution.
Over the next week, as the word spread about the fight to get Lee’s name taken off the school, other civil rights leaders endorsed the campaign and bombarded the board with letters, emails and calls. Eventually, the swiftly-moving campaign targeted Long Beach’s mayor and other city officials. Though they demurred and claimed that the decision was totally in the hands of the Long Beach school board, they sensed there would be political fallout from the negative publicity, should the board do nothing.
We then held two major press conferences in front of the school board’s office, complete with a damning white paper about Lee, slavery, secession and treason. We again publicly demanded that the board remove Lee’s name. By then the campaign had attracted a lot of media and public traction. Dozens of parents of current and former students weighed in. Some opposed the name change out of traditional loyalty or nostalgia. But the overwhelming majority not only backed the change, they came up with alternative names, almost all of whom were Black or Hispanic political, business, civic or activist leaders in Long Beach.
At a packed board meeting in which speaker after speaker took the public comment mic and railed against the Lee name, the board got the message and unanimously voted to remove it from the school. It was renamed after a noted Latina civic leader, Olivia Nieto Herrera.
The fight I initiated to dump the Lee on the school smashed a popular misconception that Confederate monuments are solely an antiquated, primordial, part tribute, part racially-defiant, product of the South. The monuments are everywhere throughout the Northern and Western states — on roads, highways, parks, in front of public buildings, city squares and, of course, schools. The Long Beach fight exposed yet another myth: that they were all erected decades ago.
They were not.
Many were erected in the 1950s and 1960s in the South’s massive nose thumb at the civil rights movement and integration.
In a backhanded way, Trump got that when he put the White House and by extension the federal government’s stamp of unofficial approval on the tributes to secession, treason and slavery by calling the monuments “beautiful.” This is not a reach for him to preserve a dusty, moldy, long-dead, bygone past, but a living, breathing, politically-defiant present. The Lee and Confederate monument defenders offer enduring political shelf value to Trump. Many of them cheered lustily for him at rallies during and after his campaign, and marched to the polls to help put him in the White House. He owes a deep political debt to them, and he’ll need them again in 2018 and 2020.
Fortunately, this wasn’t the case in Long Beach when our fight brought Lee’s moniker on the elementary school down. The message we sent then, and how we sent it, is even more important now. We took Lee down, and Trump notwithstanding, it can and should be done in every nook and cranny of the nation where Lee and the other Confederates adorn public places. Their presence is a daily reminder that treason, secession and slavery still stain the nation with shame.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.