06/25/2015 06:21 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2016

Beyond the Bars and Stars: School Names and the Confederacy


Said Representative James Clyburn last Thursday, June 18 to mourners at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston: "When you leave these hallowed halls and go back to your respective communities, wherever that may be, please break your silence. Speak up. If we stay silent, they win. They must not win."

Communities across the country, grappling with last Wednesday's horrific act of terrorism, have taken heed of Rep. Clyburn's call and broken their silence over a symbol that continues to fly high over the state capital in Columbia, South Carolina: a symbol that stands for death, intimidation, and centuries of oppression, pain, and suffering. The scene on Monday in which Governor Nikki Haley stood in front of a crowd of South Carolina legislators sent a resounding message to the South Carolina legislature and the rest of the nation about what the symbol means for most Americans. All that is left to do is to take down the Confederate flag, an act that only the General Assembly may request. Its survival, whether in South Carolina or elsewhere, reminds us that we still remain a nation divided: a nation that still treats citizens differently according to the color of their skin. It is disheartening to hear that just as the public comes together -- large businesses and governments alike -- to condemn a symbol for the sentiments it represents, online sales of the flag have increased manifold.

Breaking our silence to honor the memories of those murdered on Wednesday, June 17 can, and ought, to occupy many forms. The nation's conversation surrounding a symbol, the Confederate flag, reminds us of merely one form. But it is an incredibly important one. Symbols are not only passive reflections of our values and histories: they are also active projections of the narratives we seek to share with the world. In this sense, symbols like the Confederate flag are not merely relics of history. When they fly over a state capital, they set a tone; they send a message. Symbols inform our relationship with the rest of the world, and in so doing, shape the way we view ourselves. To take down a symbol like the Confederate flag, then, represents no small feat. Such an action would represent a repudiation of a value system that is alive today, and kicking in the likes of Roof. It calls out the Confederate flag for what it is, despite claims otherwise: a vestige of hate, division, and oppression.

The Confederate flag, however, is not the only symbol that keeps open a racist chapter in our nation's history. As the debate heads to other states such as Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi surrounding statues and other memorials to the standard bearers of the Confederacy, we are reminded that there remains more to remembrances of the Confederacy than the Rebel Flag.

In heeding Rep. Clyburn's call, I must break my silence about those symbols, which, as a northern Virginian, were features of my community. Counties across Virginia send thousands of students to public schools named for the men who fought to protect all for which the Confederacy stood. In my own Fairfax County, hundreds of students graduate from Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart High Schools every year. The former school is named for the man who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia and surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House: a three-hour drive south of the school; the latter school is named for a Confederate army general who helped capture John Brown and kill those Native Americans who dared to stand in the way of a nation expanding westward. Students heading to a football game at J.E.B. Stuart High School to root for the Raiders, a reference to the Confederate soldiers that Stuart led, can take Lee Highway and Leesburg Pike, the former road named for the aforementioned Robert E. Lee, and the latter road named for a Virginian town founded by Lee's great-granduncle.

The histories of these two schools' eponyms are not unique. There are at least six public schools, elementary and high schools alike, named for Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Schools such as these, built long after the last battle cry of the Civil War, honor men who dedicated their lives to protecting a value system symbolized by the flag that has long cast a shadow over the country's heinous treatment of its own people. The graves of Confederate war soldiers and generals across Virginia remain decorated with Confederate flags today. It was an important decision, therefore, when Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia would no longer issue license plates embellished with the Confederate flag. To call attention, however, to the "Rebel Flag" means we ought to also turn our attention to the names of those places, no longer segregated, where we send students to cultivate the beliefs necessary for a thriving society. It is in schools where we impart all sorts of symbols and traditions to the next wave of America's leaders. In light of the nation's conversations regarding a symbol emblazoned on the license plate of a man who reportedly intended to renew another civil war on Wednesday, we ought to question those symbols, or names, that lie atop the institutions that constitute the very building blocks of our society. Schools represent some of the most important of these building blocks. To otherwise remain silent, and to leave such symbols unquestioned, means we hand a victory both to those Confederate soldiers who lost the war 150 years ago and to those like Dylann Storm Roof who remain influenced by them today.