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LOCAL News :: Historical Reclamation : Race & Ethnicity : Right Wing

It’s 2007: Time to tell the truth about Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee --- the Virginian who owned and exploited Black people; helped steal half of Mexico during the U.S.-Mexican War; led the attack on abolitionist hero John Brown at Harper’s Ferry; deserted the Union Army; took up arms against the country he had sworn to defend in order to preserve the immensely profitable system of chattel slavery; and lost the Civil War by getting his reactionary butt decisively kicked by a force that included 200,000 armed people of African descent --- was born on Jan. 19, 1807, in Stratford, Va.

The statue of him on Monument Avenue, owned, maintained and promoted by the state of Virginia, was intended to celebrate the political re-emergence of the state’s white oligarchy after the brief period of post-Civil War Black freedom...
2007 marks the 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth. And that means that Virginia can expect to see a wide assortment of neo-Confederate yahoos coming out to march around Lee statues, practice the Rebel Yell and wave the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, while piously insisting that they are simply celebrating “heritage, not hate.?

But what is more disturbing and outrageous is that the state government of Virginia is using our hard-earned tax dollars to promote the myth that Lee was some kind of hero, a saintly role model for all Virginians – including our school children.

This sick official campaign is being promoted by both Democrats and Republicans. It involves elected politicians as well as the appointed heads of government departments.

And it has been proceeding – till now – with little or no opposition.

In this issue of The Richmond Defender we take a look at the real Robert E. Lee. We expose his state-funded promotion. And we examine why the “Lee-as Hero? myth has been – and still is – so useful to the rich and powerful.

And, because this is the Defender, we will do more than just investigate, analyze and report.

We are also working with civil rights, anti-war and other progressive forces to oppose this official reactionary, pro-Lee, pro-Confederate, pro-white-supremacist campaign. Stay tuned.

Virginia’s government takes on ‘coordinating’ the Lee celebrations

Virginia’s government is not at all embarrassed that one of the state’s most famous sons led a war to defend slavery.

Far from it. In fact, the state – headed for the past five years by Democratic governors — has been in the forefront of promoting Lee as a hero.

In 2005, the Virginia General Assembly established a joint subcommittee called the “Lee Memorial Commission of the Commonwealth.? The mission, according to a commission press release, was “to plan and coordinate the celebration of Robert E. Lee’s 200th birthday.?

Co-chaired by Delegate Benjamin L. Cline and Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Republicans from the 24th District, this official state commission also includes representatives from the Virginia divisions of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Also represented are the Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Tourism Corporation, as well as the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction is Billy K. Cannaday Jr., who, as head of Chesterfield Public Schools, provoked a community uproar by using the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a snow day.

The inclusion of the state’s top education official in the Lee commission is particularly disturbing.

According the commission’s press release, the committee is planning educational initiatives which “might? include a “teachers institute at the Museum of the Confederacy? and essay or poster contests.

Plus, “efforts to develop curriculum materials that focus on history, civics, and leadership that could be incorporated into the Standards of Learning ....?

Studying Lee as “hero? in order to pass the SOL tests – life just gets grimmer and grimmer for Virginia’s schoolchildren.

Commission spokeswoman Lisa Wallmeyer told the Defender that the commission had received a grant from the state’s tourism department to produce a brochure and Web site listing the various Lee birthday celebrations around the state.

Wallmeyer said the commission had not received state funding to promote its own events.

“Our main role is coordination,? she said.

The brochure, available at www.rlee2007.com, doesn’t even pretend to be objective:

“Many words have been used to describe Robert E. Lee,? the brochure states, “soldier, unifier, educator, leader, gentleman, father, husband, man of faith, honor driven – but none characterize him better than as one of Virginia’s finest sons.?

Your tax dollars at work.

Tax dollars have also been spent in other ways to promote the “Heroic Lee? myth.

Richmond has literally dozens of buildings, bridges and organizations named for the commander of the Confederate Army, but none are as prominent as the Robert E. Lee Monument (its official name) on Monument Avenue.

That broad boulevard also includes statues of other Confederate figures, such as J.E.B. Stewart, “Stonewall? Jackson and Jefferson Davis, but the Lee statue is the only one actually owned by the state government – specifically, by the Department of General Services.

And the state has been a worthy steward.

Last year, the Department of General Services shelled out some $450,000 to clean up the statue in preparation for 200th Lee birthday celebrations.

And last fall, the state’s Department of Historic Resources added the statue to the official Virginia Landmarks Register, also in preparation for Lee’s birthday.

That process included an application from General Services to the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The GS application included this description of the statue’s historical significance:

“Placement of the statue was intended to perpetuate the memory of Lee’s character as a man of heroic action, as well as to herald the emergence of a New South from the adversity of defeat and Reconstruction.?

In other words, the Lee statue on Monument Avenue, owned, maintained and promoted by the state of Virginia, was intended to celebrate the political re-emergence of the state’s white oligarchy after the brief period of post-Civil War Black freedom.

Happy birthday?

How the ‘Lost Cause’ cult serves the rich & powerful

To understand why rich and powerful people still promote the cult of the Confederacy, you have to understand just how useful that mythology has been to them over the years.

The Civil War took a great economic toll on the South. Richmond, an industrial center, seemed on the road to recovery when the country was hit by a great economic downturn, the Panic of 1873. Poor and working people, of course, felt the greatest blows, and began to fight back.

Historian Howard Zinn describes this period in his book “A People’s History of the United States?:

“The year 1886 became known to contemporaries as ‘the year of the great uprising of labor.’ From 1881 to 1885, strikes had averaged about 500 each year, involving perhaps 150,000 workers each year. In 1886 there were over 1,400 strikes, involving 500,000 workers.?

There was the great railroad strike of 1877 and mass struggles for the eight-hour day. Across New York and New England, women textile workers were walking out of factories, demanding the recognition of their unions. All these developments were responses to an economic system that was bringing great riches to a few but mass misery to many.

Labor rebellions were also affecting the fundamental source of white Southern wealth and power – the super-exploitation of Black workers. In 1887, close to 10,000 Black Southern sugar workers went on strike, demanding a dollar a day instead of the worthless company script they were given as wages.

The great fear of the Southern plantation and factory owners was that Black and white workers might unite and challenge their employers together. That fear was deepened by an event that took place in Richmond.

The Knights of Labor, launched in 1869, was developing as one of the country’s most powerful labor organizations – and it was organizing workers regardless of race or gender. By the mid-1880s it had chapters in Richmond.

In 1886, the Knights decided to hold their 10th annual convention here in the “Holy City of the Lost Cause.? The results were nearly explosive.

When a Black delegate, Frank J. Ferrell of New York City, was denied lodging in a local hotel, the entire New York Knights delegation moved out to another hotel.

When that same delegation, including Ferrell, attended a public play together, the rest of the audience walked out. The next night an armed mob gathered outside the theater to prevent a repeat performance by the Knights.

In an act of racial solidarity, Ferrell was chosen to introduce the Knight’s leader, Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly, to the convention. According to Powderly’s autobiography, that gesture caused a furor far beyond Richmond:

“The Southern press was much exercised over the condition of affairs, and many unjust editorials were written on statements which were sent out from Richmond by sensational writers.?

The potential for solidarity between white and Black workers was deeply threatening to those who depended on racial divisions to stay in power, and no one understood that better than Virginia’s property-owning class. After all, this was the ruling class that during the colonial period invented modern chattel slavery by declaring that white indentured servants could gain their freedom, but that Blacks – because they were Black — would remain enslaved.

Richmond had already established itself as the center of pro-Confederate mythology. In 1873, four years before the end of Reconstruction, the newly organized Southern Historical Society moved its headquarters from New Orleans to Richmond – and into rent-free offices in the State Capitol. Hollywood Cemetery, site of the city’s first Confederate Memorial, became a shrine. Pro-Confederate associations proliferated.

After Robert E. Lee died in 1870, various memorial associations bickered over which would sponsor the city’s ultimate monument, the one that would honor the Patron Saint of the Lost Cause. Finally, the state government stepped in to take charge.

The dedication of the Lee statue on Monument Avenue took place on May 29, 1890. Marie Tyler-McGraw describes the scene in her book “At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and its People?:

“The celebration that accompanied the placement and unveiling of the statue of Lee on horseback was elaborate, ritualized and well attended. Although donations had come from all over the South, Richmond’s citizens played a central role in the commemorative ceremonies, which featured most of the white citizenry involved in transporting the statue through the streets.

“Infants and toddlers were taken from the nursery to touch the ropes that pulled the statue; one of four ropes was especially for young ladies, and pieces of the rope were kept as souvenirs and passed down in families.?

The cutting and distribution of the rope was also a common ritual after lynchings.

A 1996 account in The Virginian-Pilot adds that “Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston unveiled the statue while an estimated 100,000 spectators gave vent to their feelings with Rebel Yells, punctuated at intervals with the booming of cannon.?

It seems safe to assume that the city’s Black community viewed this display as a hostile act, intended to declare that whites were back in charge – or at rich whites, strongly supported by white workers.

Writing in The Richmond Planet, editor John Mitchell Jr. declared that the Confederate flags and yells “told in no uncertain tones that they still cling to theories which were presumed to be buried for all eternity.? Instead, he wrote, the ceremonies “handed a legacy of treason and blood to the future.?

Commenting on the project’s male committee members, Mitchell added that “Most of them were at a table, either on top or under it, when the war was going on.’’

So the myth-makers accomplished their goal --- for a time. White workers were waving Confederate flags instead of union picket signs. And whenever the specter of working-class unity threatened to re-emerge, as during the Great Depression, the icons of the Confederacy could be exhumed and paraded again --- backed up, when necessary, by the threat of racist violence.

The result? Today the South is the least unionized region of the country. White workers may have the corner on the best jobs, but they are paid substantially less than their counterparts in the rest of the country.

Today, 117 years later, working people are again facing hard times. The country is at war, wages are stagnant, the housing market is tanking. But, once again, organized labor is beginning to show signs of life.

So it seems far more than a coincidence that the rich and powerful have chosen this time to try and reinvigorate the myth of Lee-as-Hero. 2007 will be a year of ceremonies, parades, meetings and rallies honoring Lee and designed to persuade white workers that their loyalty should be to their race, not to their own multi-racial class.

Hopefully, this issue of The Richmond Defender will help persuade them otherwise.

The Richmond Defender is a community newspaper with information relevant to the poor, working class, and progressive communities in Richmond - Monthly and FREE at all city libraries, many community centers, and in retail locations all over the city.

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