By Lucas O’Connor
I’m not from San Diego.
I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, surrounded by the Lee-Custis Mansion, Lee Highway, Washington-Lee High School, and Jefferson Davis Highway. A place where schools and streets co-mingle presidents and traitors. Raised in a house a mile and a half from the intersection of Lee Highway and Lincoln Street with no apparent embarrassment or irony. Maybe it’s a perfect metaphor.
I know a little bit about what it means to be raised as though the Confederacy is an awkward family footnote we try not to bring up at Thanksgiving, even in an otherwise liberal bastion like Arlington (Obama twice won by 40 points there). I know growing up that way warps you. There’s no way around it. When these people are not only normalized, but memorialized, it’s a struggle to grasp the enormity of what they did.
It’s a struggle to fully understand what it means that more than half a million Americans died because these people felt the first few million slaves weren’t enough. That these people decided it was necessary to raise up an army fueled by violent contempt and oppressive entitlement for people based on the color of their skin, violent contempt for the notion of a truly United States, or both.
I’ve felt how that implicit validation living in the most mundane parts of the world around you gets inside and begins to rot. It infects your mind and your soul and you begin to doubt what it means; doubt that it was really so bad. After all, as a child you know what villains are, but why would you imagine your community would honor a villain? Of course not.
I know how insane it is to cheer the Washington-Lee Generals at basketball and football games, as though there’s a political or moral equivalent between the American Revolution and the Confederacy. I know how, in practice, the insanity fades as the names morph into just ‘Dubya-n-Ell’ and one of the most destructive and effective traitors the country has ever known fades into normalcy.
I’ve watched people try to create a moral equivalence between the American Revolution and Confederacy. Say what you want about the egalitarian shortcomings of the American Revolution (there are plenty), but it was about creating a nation where we have the opportunity to move freedom forward. The Confederacy was perpetrated by those who felt the survival of violent racial oppression and slavery was more important than the survival of this country. Unlike the people they enslaved, they had a choice. And they made it.
In Arlington, there’s at least a reason for all this. Lee spent a good portion of his life there, his wife Mary was part of a prominent family there. It’s no excuse, but at least there’s inertia to blame. San Diego doesn’t even have that.
San Diego named Robert E. Lee Elementary School in the heat of the nationwide battle to end school segregation. The school was named less than five years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education. Barely a year after the Governor of Arkansas pledged that streets would run with blood if black children tried to integrate schools and President Eisenhower had to send the 101st Airborne to prevent it.
It was named just three years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River weighed down by a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire for reportedly flirting with a white woman. Three years after his killers were acquitted and immediately confessed with impunity.
Three years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and with the Civil Rights Act still five years away.
It was that moment. A moment still in living memory for a great many today. When dozens of state and local government officials across the South were organizing open rebellion against federal law in order to deny constitutionally mandated human rights to people based on the color of their skin. When they were insisting that violent racial oppression was more important than the nation’s laws and constitutionally protected education. That’s the moment San Diego decided it was time to declare Robert E. Lee a role model for young people seeking education.
We can’t live like this. Sedition, mass murder, treason, enslavement reflects the worst of us, and it gets no better simply because the passing of time tempts us to close our eyes and forget. We must teach it but we can’t continue behaving as though important and honorable are the same.
I’m under no illusions that this will end soon. Or even in my lifetime. But today there’s one thing we can do. Last month, Governor Brown challenged San Diego to address the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School.
This week, right now, San Diego Unified school district is asking anyone who lives in the district whether to change the name. I told them what I think on this survey. I hope you will too. Friday, November 20 is the last day to complete the survey.