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Commentary Justice

Robert E. Lee, El Paso’s public schools, and the political power of public symbols

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By Neal M. Rosendorf

Public symbols have political power. The statues that communities erect, the flags communities fly, the names communities inscribe on their buildings, parks, playgrounds, and pools, are never lightly chosen. They are never devoid of meaning, and they always send a message.

So it is across America and around the world, and so it is in El Paso, exemplified by the Robert E. Lee Elementary School, now the target of a campaign to rename it and cease honoring the military commander of a would-be republic with slavery and white supremacy as its twin pillars and very reason for being. A name can contain multitudes, and Robert E. Lee’s name is especially brimming with meaning and force – destructive for many decades, constructive at last – as it has been put to use in El Paso.

Neal Rosendorf

There is of course nothing novel about the idea that public symbols have political power. The men and women who supported and fought for the American Revolution understood and exploited this power, contained both in what is raised up and what is torn down.

Immediately after the Declaration of Independence was publicly proclaimed in New York City in July 1776, George Washington’s soldiers toppled the equestrian statue of King George III, denounced in the Declaration as a tyrant who “has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” They cheekily melted it down to make musket balls for the Continental Army.

Southern segregationists also understood that public symbols have political power, and they harnessed symbols of the Confederacy to assert, to underline, to reinforce their absolute power of life and death over African-Americans.

Though they lost the Civil War, southern whites won the peace through their grinding, relentless effort to gut, with Northern acquiescence, the postwar constitutional amendments that guaranteed once-enslaved African-Americans freedom, citizenship, and (for Black men) the vote.

The full name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School adorns one corner of the school. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Once their insidious job was completed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy decision that declared segregation constitutional and removed any residue of federal support for African-Americans’ rights, white southerners waged a campaign over more than a half-century of modifying their state flags to include Confederate motifs, of raising statues to the dark notables of the Confederate cause, and naming official buildings and other public spaces in their honor.

They would continue wielding public symbols as political power right up to the final victory of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s. It can be argued that they and their descendants never really stopped.

Despite mendacious or ignorant claims to the contrary, the purpose of employing these Confederate symbols was not to honor Southern history, but to re-write it: to advance the pernicious myth of the noble “Lost Cause”; to proclaim the endurance of white supremacy and unyielding resistance to integration; and to make it clear to African-Americans that they had no hope of ever achieving civil and social equality with whites.

As for El Paso in particular, the city announced a call for contractor bids to construct what had already been officially dubbed Robert E. Lee Elementary School on Sept. 25, 1955. To put it into historical context, the bid solicitation was advertised a year-and-a-half after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that overturned Plessy and proclaimed separate accommodations to be inherently unequal, first and foremost in public education; four months after a second Supreme Court decision commanded foot-dragging segregated states to integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed”; and a mere two days after an all-white jury found innocent the brutal murderers of 14 year-old Emmett Till, despite the death-defying bravery of an African-American witness who testified to their guilt.

The name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School is truncated near the entrance to the Northeast El Paso school. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

El Paso’s white leaders knew exactly what they were doing, understood perfectly well that public symbols have political power, and proceeded to exploit this power for the same reasons their counterparts – their comrades-in-arms – throughout the South did so: to propagandize the myth of the Lost Cause, to proclaim white supremacy and resist integration, and to remind El Paso’s quietly beleaguered African-American residents of their subjugation and, implicitly, their existential vulnerability, should they ever forget for even a moment their place below all white El Pasoans in the city’s social and political order.

As I write these words, the El Paso school board trustees have passed a resolution that sets the elementary school change-of-name effort fully in motion. Next to come are public hearings to arrive at a final decision, presumably to be followed by the selection of a new name.

This is good news, but a change is hardly certain at this point. One isolated EPISD board member, Diane Dye, argued as vigorously as possible against dropping Robert E. Lee’s name in favor of honoring someone who is not an avatar of the slavery-defending Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee Elementary School was conceived, constructed, and christened in the midst of the civil rights movement, as a fusillade against it.

The school’s name is a lingering monument to white supremacy and the oppression of local African-Americans. It should, and must, be renamed, with the misdirected honor withdrawn from a man who did his level best to fracture the United States and leave it weak, in order to ensure the perpetuation of black chattel slavery.

Once Robert E. Lee and his appalling symbolism are tossed into the dustbin of history, it will be possible for a new generation of El Pasoans to set about the business of exerting their power in the service of making amends for the iniquities of the past, and of marching into a more just and decent future. It is long past time to honor someone who symbolizes the best of El Paso and America, not the very worst.

Neal M. Rosendorf is a U.S. international historian in the Department of Government at New Mexico State University and an El Paso resident.

Cover photo: The Robert E. Lee Elementary School sign at the front of the campus includes the school mascot, the lion. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

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