(Actual Robert E. Lee High School students, once upon a time)
While we're on the subject, I'm keeping up with little bits of information like this because they are so telling:
The removal, which took place on Tuesday, was the culmination of a bitter, months-long battle over the fate of the 106-year-old marble sculpture, which has stood in front the courthouse since 1952.
No, not that the sculpture was 40 years old when it was placed in front of the courthouse (although isn't that interesting, too?), but that it was placed in 1952. What was going on in 1952 to make people want to memorialize the Civil War with a statue at the courthouse?
In the civil rights arena, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed the law suit that ultimately overturned the doctrine of separate-but-equal and mandated the desegregation of America’s public schools. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a racially integrated team of NAACP lawyers sued for the right of a black child, Linda Brown, to attend the all-white elementary school closest to her home, instead of having to travel across town to an all-black school. The federal district court that heard the case ruled against the NAACP, asserting that the Topeka school board had maintained essentially equal facilities. But the ruling also acknowledged that segregation, itself, had an adverse affect on black children, and this provided the basis for the appeal that eventually prevailed before the Supreme Court in 1954.
Although not as compelling as the Korean War or the threat from communism, civil rights was a campaign issue in 1952. Despite opposition from southerners in his own party, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, praised the steps toward integration that had been achieved during Truman’s presidency, citing in particular the admission of black Americans into graduate and professional schools run by state universities that had previously denied their access. Stevenson asserted that civil rights means “the right to equal opportunity for education, employment and decent living conditions. It means that none of these rights shall be denied because of race or color or creed.” Furthermore, he advocated federal legislation “when states fail to act and inequalities of treatment persist.” Eisenhower, the Republican candidate, was less forthcoming on the issue. He opposed using political or economic power to enforce segregation but pointed to his record of promoting racial integration within the Army during the closing days of World War II. Where a specific issue clearly fell under federal jurisdiction, such as in the administration of federal programs and institutions, Eisenhower favored using executive power to end segregation. On the other hand, he did not believe that legislative action was an appropriate or effective means for ending discrimination, and he was reluctant to overstep what he believed were the proper bounds of federal authority in order to address it. During the campaign, Eisenhower rarely went out of his way discuss civil rights, although in September, he warned white Southerners that they could lose their own rights if they failed to protect the rights of black Americans.
In 1952, the country made some modest progress in granting equal rights. For the first time since 1881, there were no reports of lynching in the United States. Moreover, black Americans gained greater opportunities and recognition in professional sports and entertainment. Jackie Robinson became the highest-paid player in Brooklyn Dodger history. Dorothy Manor, a noted soprano who sang at Truman’s inauguration, became the first black artist to perform at Constitution Hall since 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the hall in Washington D.C., refused to permit Marian Anderson to sing there. Groton, an exclusive boys’ preparatory school, admitted its first black student, and Phoenix opened a restricted cemetery to permit the burial of an African-American war veteran.
But race-based restrictions at the Miami Springs Country club were upheld when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the city-owned facility could limit access for black golfers to one day a week. The U.S. Supreme court declined to hear an appeal because it maintained that the decision did not center around a federal issue. It did, however, uphold a decision barring segregation on interstate railways.
A three-judge federal district court panel upheld the separate-but-equal doctrine in the case of Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. However, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, and, along with Bolling v. Sharpe and Gebhart v. Belton, the Davis case was joined with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Presiding before a packed audience, the Supreme Court first heard arguments on these landmark cases on December 9, but after lengthy deliberations that lasted into spring 1953, the judges scheduled new arguments for the fall 1953 session.
Not exactly Brown v. Board or even Loving v. Virginia days, much less the March on Washington or even the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But challenges to the status of black Americans in America was in the air, and a response to those challenges would certainly have been to place a monument to the Confederacy before the courthouse.
Which, after all, is the local seat of government power, and an assertion of who that power serves.
To put this in a more personal context, the high school I attended opened in 1958, three years after I was born and two years before I moved to that town. It was named for Robert E. Lee, which is curious. The other high school in town was named for John Tyler, 10th president of the United States, and namesake of the town (he was President when the town was created as the county seat of Smith County). What connection did Gen. Lee have to Tyler in 1958? Well, start with 1955, figuring it takes a few years to plan, build, and open a school.
On August 28, fourteen year-old Emmett Till, a black boy visiting from Chicago, was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi for “talking fresh” to a white woman tending a store. Roy Bryant, the woman’s husband, and J.W. Milam, his half brother, were arrested and quickly brought to trial. But despite testimony connecting them to the crime, they were rapidly acquitted by a local, all-white jury. Afterward, Bryant and Milam admitted in a paid interview in Look magazine that they killed Till.
Outrage over Till’s murder and the failure of the all-white jury to bring his killers to justice fueled the nascent civil rights movement, which had been energized the year before by the Supreme Court’s ruling desegregating the public schools and by its followup ruling in May 1955, insisting that desegregation take place with “all deliberate speed” and be overseen by federal courts. The next major development in the civil rights movement was the successful 13-month bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The prolonged action demonstrated to the nation the protestors’ resolve to gain equal rights, resulted in the elimination of discriminatory practices on public transportation in Montgomery, and brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to public prominence. It was also the first instance where King, cognizant of how Gandhi used non-violent, passive resistence to gain India’s independence in 1947, successfully employed peaceful protest to achieve social change.
The boycott, which the leaders of the white community angrily denounced, began in early December, four days after Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a public bus to a white rider. Charged with violating a city ordinance intended to “separate the white people from the Negroes,” Parks agreed to become a test case for the NAACP, despite fears that she might be lynched for trying to reverse the local segregation law. This concern, after the murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of his killers, seemed especially well grounded. E.D. Nixon, a former head of the Alabama chapter of the NAACP then organized a bus boycott for Monday, December 5, and he invited King to address a group of supporters at the Holy Street Baptist Church that evening. Following King’s stirring speech, Parks was introduced, and the group voted to continue to boycott the public buses until black Americans were treated courteously; black drivers were hired for predominantly black routes, and all riders were seated on a first-come, first-served basis, with blacks filling the bus from the rear and whites from the front. These demands were rejected by the city on December 8, and the strike continued. Its organizers arranged a network of car pooling and settled in for a long holdout that did not end until December 1956, when the Supreme Court sided with the protestors.
In other civil rights-related developments, contralto Marian Anderson became the first black American to sing at the New York Metropolitan Opera, when she performed Ulrica, the high priestess, in Verdi’s A Masked Ball. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) forbade segregation of commercial trains and buses that crossed state lines; the Maryland National Guard was ordered to desegregate, and an all-white Methodist congregation in Mystic, Connecticut installed a black American as its pastor. Walter White, the executive secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who had worked with Truman and Roosevelt on race-related issues, died at age 61 and was succeeded by Roy Wilkins.
Violence erupted in scattered regions throughout the South as black children began to enroll in public schools. Early in the year, in an effort to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling calling for desegregation, Virginia sanctioned state funding of private schools. Autherine Lucy, the University of Alabama’s first black student, was suspended after riots on campus threatened her safety in early February; then she was expelled for criticizing the university officials. In June, Alabama outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In April, singer Nat “King” Cole was attacked while performing before a white audience in Birmingham, but in November NBC gave him his own fifteen-minute television variety show on Monday evenings, before the network news. In the summer of 1957, he received a half-hour time slot at 10 P.M., but the show was cancelled in December 1957, reportedly because sponsors feared a Southern boycott. Cole was the third, and last, black performer to host a television variety show during the 1950s. He was preceded by Hazel Scott (DuMont 1950) and Billy Daniels (ABC 1952), but neither of those shows remained on the air for more than three months.
In Montgomery, emotions surrounding the bus boycott became increasingly passionate. In late January, Martin Luther King Jr.’s front porch was bombed, as was the home of his colleague E.D. Nixon a few days later. In February, King and 88 others were indicted for violating a 1921 law prohibiting boycotts. King was tried and convicted in March and sentenced to pay a $500 fine. In June, a federal district court declared that the segregationist policies were unconstitutional, but Montgomery officials appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which upheld it in November, ruling that the practice of segregating public transportation is unconstitutional, even for travel that occurs solely within a state. The boycott continued until December 21, 1956, when the ruling officially arrived in Montgomery and King, Nixon, Glenn Smiley, and Ralph Abernathy boarded the city’s first integrated bus. However, a bus boycott in Tallahassee, Florida that began in May continued through 1958, as local officials refused to desegregate the buses, despite the court’s ruling.
On March 12, Southern senators and congressmen issued the so-called Southern Manifesto declaring their opposition to the Supreme Court’s intrusion into what they regarded as a state, not federal, matter. Refusing to sign the document were Democratic Senators Al Gore, Sr. (D. Tennessee), Estes Kefauver (D. Tennessee), and Lyndon Johnson (D. Texas), the Senate majority leader.
The major civil rights developments were the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the crisis over school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although considerably weaker than originally proposed, the Civil Rights Act established a division of civil rights within the Justice Department and a national Commission on Civil Rights. It also enacted penalties for violating the voting rights of any U.S. citizen. The act, which survived a record-setting 24-hour and18-minute filibuster by Senator Strom Thurmond (D. South Carolina) was the first federal civil rights legislation since 1875.
The Little Rock crisis threatened to create a Constitutional crisis as, at its height, Eisenhower had to call in the Army to make the governor of Arkansas comply with a federal court order. The situation began on September 2, when Governor Orval Faubus announced he would call out the National Guard to block enrollment of black students at Little Rock’s Central High School. A federal judge then directed the U.S. Justice Department to file an injunction insisting that Faubus comply with the desegregation order; however, the next day the Guard blocked the students from entering the school. On September 14, Faubus met with Eisenhower, who maintained that he had no objection to the presence of the Guard, but insisted that they must protect the black students, not bar them. He turned down Faubus’s request to defy the Supreme Court edict to act with “all deliberate speed” by ordering a year’s delay in the desegregation program. Faubus then appeared to be willing to comply with Eisenhower, but on September 20, after being ordered by the federal court to remove the Guard and allow the integration to proceed, Faubus made a radio broadcast asking black students to remain home until he could implement a peaceful integration program. He then withdrew the Guard and left town to attend a conference.
The following Monday, September 23, the nine students evaded a crowd of over 1,000 white protestors and entered the school by a side entrance. When their presence inside was discovered, the crowd became so unruly the police could barely contain it, and groups of white students left the building in protest. Fearful that the situation might erupt into uncontrollable violence, Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann ordered that the black students be withdrawn until their safety could be guaranteed.
That night Eisenhower issued a “cease and desist” decree against those obstructing federal law. However, the following day, September 24, an even larger crowd appeared, and the students were unable to reenter the school. In response, Eisenhower federalized 10,000 members of the Guard and ordered 1,000 soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to go to Little Rock. He explained his decision to the nation that evening in a nationally televised broadcast. Before dawn the next day, paratroopers encircled Central High and faced the crowd with bayonets drawn as the students entered. The paratroopers left after two months, but the federalized Guard remained throughout the school year.
The following year, after the citizens of Little Rock voted by more than 2-1 against integration, Faubus closed all of the public schools in Little Rock and tried to lease the public facilities to a private corporation that would run the schools as segregated facilities. However, a federal court ruled that the practice was unconstitutional, and in 1959 the Little Rock public schools were integrated without serious incident.
Elsewhere opposition to desegregation was more narrowly focused, but sometimes more violent. Four black churches and the homes of two black ministers were bombed on January 10 in Montgomery, Alabama, and on September 10, a public school in Nashville, Tennessee that had admitted black students was bombed. The Georgia senate outlawed interracial athletic competitions, and the governor of Florida shut down the Tallahassee bus system rather than integrate it. In October, Eisenhower had to apologize to the finance minister of Ghana because a restaurant in Delaware had refused to serve him. On the other hand, the first black family moved into Levittown, an all white suburb in New York, and Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to win at Wimbledon, received an enthusiastic ticker-tape parade upon her homecoming in New York City.
The integration of public schools in the South remained a contentious issue. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus closed the city’s four high schools after the Supreme Court rejected his “evasive scheme” to privatize them and then have a private company enroll only white students. In Tennessee, Clinton High School, which had been integrated in 1956, was destroyed by dynamite. Also firebombed was a synagogue in Atlanta. The Supreme Court struck down Alabama’s attempt to demand access to the membership rolls of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Integration continued, often grudgingly, throughout the South, despite ongoing protests by segregationists. The Southern Regional Council reported that 33 southern cities in nine states had desegrated their transit systems without incident, all of them voluntarily except for New Orleans; Atlanta; Columbia, South Carolina, and Montgomery, Alabama. And public libraries in cities in North Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, and Georgia voluntarily permitted black patrons use of the facilities. They were refused such privileges in Savannah, Georgia, however. The Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law prohibiting white and black boxers to fight one another. A federal court voided an Arkansas law that allowed schools to close to prevent integration, and in Tallahassee, Florida, four young white men received life sentences for raping a black woman. No white man had ever previously been convicted in Florida of raping a black woman. In Mississippi a law forbidding interracial cohabitation was struck down. Schools were reopened and integrated in Virginia and in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Eisenhower had called in the army in 1957 to enforce a federal court order, and where Governor Orval Faubus closed the public high schools in 1958 rather than permit continued desegregation. When the president of the State College of Mississippi forbade the school’s basketball team to participate in the racially integrated NCAA tournament, despite a student vote that called for participation by a 6-1 margin, the students burned his effigy on campus. A federal court ruling overturned a law barring interracial athletic competition, and the National Basketball Association responded to complaints by black star players Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor by requiring that all teams must receive assurances that their personnel will not be discriminated against in lodging and dining facilities.
At the federal level, under provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights came into existence. It conducted public hearing throughout the country into discrimination in the areas of voting rights and housing, and it exposed significant abuses within the nation. It also called for federal officials to monitor voting in the Southern states. In addition, the U.S. Justice Department proposed a ban on federal funding to states that maintained segregated public schools. The Supreme Court, for the second time, voided a $100,000 fine levied against the NAACP by Alabama, in response to the organization’s refusal to provide its membership and financial records to state officials.
On the other hand, impediments to integration remained strong. The Georgia legislature passed a series of anti-integration bills that, among other things, gave the governor power to close individual public schools that were integrated. A black woman in Little Rock with a rare blood type almost died because of a new state law requiring that all donated blood be labeled by race. Although the law permitted the mixing of blood with the patient’s consent, many white people did not respond to the city-wide appeals because they erroneously believed that a black person would not be able to receive their blood. The director of Alabama’s public libraries called for the removal of a children’s book in which a black rabbit marries a white rabbit. And Louisiana passed a law forbidding black and white musicians to perform together. Jackie Robinson, the star player who integrated major league baseball, was forbidden to use the white-only waiting room at the airport in Greenville, South Carolina, and the Eisenhower administration was embarrassed after an African diplomat to the United Nations and his son were denied membership in the West Side Tennis Club because of their race. In the investigation that followed, it was revealed that the club, which sponsored the U.S. Open, had no black members and no Jewish members.
And, of course, I skipped over 1954. Context is all. Or, as E.M. Forster said: "Only connect." Robert E. Lee High School was named in 1957, a year before it opened. Other options were to name it for Ben Franklin or, a more likely Texas connection, the Alamo. But 3 years after Brown v. Board, Robert E. Lee won out. Coincidence? I think not. 13 years after it opened, Robert E. Lee high school was forced to integrate, because of Brown. 14 years after it opened it was forced, after some minor campus violence, to drop all reference to the Civil War (the mascot was the Rebel) except for the school name. That actually happened because of a court order and action by the Texas Education Agency based on that order; the school board didn't want to "reward" blacks for starting the "fight" at Lee (which was actually started by whites). 59 years after it opened, the name remains. Old times there are not forgotten. Because:
Judge William Wayne Justice’s desegregation order placing TISD under federal court oversight is dismissed after 46 years. The school district is declared “unitary,” or fully desegregated. When the case was filed in July 1970, the district was 72 percent white and 28 percent black. There were so few Hispanic students that their numbers weren’t recorded in the official school district census. Nearly 50 years later, the district is 46 percent Hispanic, 29 percent black and 21 percent white.
That was in 2016; in 2017:
On Aug. 21, more than 300 people — a bigger crowd than any current school board has seen — pack the monthly board meeting to speak for or against changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. Forty-six people address the board. “We’ve seen lots of examples of communities who deal with this issue very poorly,” board president Fritz Hager tells the crowd. “As we embark on this conversation, my hope and prayer is that we can do it in a way that’s respectful, in a way that builds up rather than tears down.”
Opponents of change decry political correctness and cultural cleansing, and plead that the name is a touchstone for many Lee graduates. Proponents of change say Tyler needs to look to the future and stop glorifying divisive myths about the region’s past. The final speaker of the night, the Rev. Michael K. Mast, has members of the audience nodding and murmuring amens to his repeated refrain: “Change the name of Robert E. Lee!”
Unlike white Lee students, the Rev. Mast tells the board, Emmett J. Scott High School students [the black school, closed after desegregation so white students wouldn't have to go there] never got a say in what happened to their school. White Tyler leaders terminated their school, mascot, and traditions behind closed doors, and Scotties weren’t told until it was too late.
The evening’s 46 speakers are almost perfectly divided on whether or not to change the name. The school board listens to the remarks without comment, in keeping with protocol. The new school year starts the following week.
Regarding that highlighted portion: But, you know, political correctness and cultural cleansing; and probably economic anxiety, too.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.