In June 2015, a friend casually asked me whether 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 by 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 by 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 that as a secessionist general, he was anything but a patriot, but a traitor to and betrayer to the Constitution. That having Lee’s name on the school was in effect stamping the imprimatur of historical and present-day legitimacy on a man who betrayed his country and cost the nation thousands of dead in leading the battlefield fight to uphold slavery. Was this the message and the lesson that Long Beach school officials wanted generations of schoolchildren to take away and learn?
Over the next week, as the word spread about the school and 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 to get Lee’s name removed. 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 was a potential political fall-out from the negative publicity if the board did 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 the board remove Lee’s name. By then the campaign had gotten much media and public traction. Dozens of parents of students at the school, and former students weighed in on the issue. Some opposed the name change out of traditional loyalty or nostalgia about the school. But the overwhelming majority not only backed the change, but came up with replacement 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 Lee’s name from the school. It was renamed after a noted Latina civic leader, Olivia Nieto Herrera.
This was one of the first victories in the fight to expunge Lee, and the parade of Confederate generals, politicians, educators and other slavery supporting big wigs, from the hundreds of Confederate monuments nationally. I say nationally, because, the fight I initiated to dump the Lee stamp 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 about them. That being that they were all erected decades ago. They weren’t. 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 by him to preserve a dusty, moldy, long dead, by gone past, but a living, and fighting politically defiant present. The Lee and Confederate monument defenders have much 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 name on the elementary school down. The message we sent then and how we sent is even more important now. That is, 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 shamefully stain the nation.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. His forthcoming book, ‘The Trump Challenge to Black America’ (Middle Passage Press) will be released in August. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.