22 Jul 2022

W. E. B. DuBois: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Monuments

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Politics, Race Relations, Slavery
W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963)

Confederate Memorials have been controversial and divisive from the moment they were constructed. For the most part they were constructed with division as their goal to begin with. The Confederate monument building phenomena dominated the years of 1895 to 1920 and then again the years of 1954 to 1965. These dates are not accidental. These years correspond to the Supreme Court decisions of Plessy v. Ferguson that canonized Jim Crow in the United States and 1954 was the Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated public schools. For more on the symbols see my article The Confederate Flag and the Nation for Which it Stands. There has never been a time in the history of these monuments that they were not divisive and offensive. That was their purpose for the proclaimed, from the beginning, a divisive and offensive message.

W. E. B. DuBois, the legendary civil rights crusader, intellectual, author of The Souls of Black Folks and so much more, loathed Civil War monuments. DuBois addressed monuments on a number of occasions. For example in 1931 he wrote, “the most terrible thing about the War, I am convinced, is its monuments.” In March 1928, he penned a piece called “Robert E. Lee” in the magazine he edited called The Crises. It is one of the most succinct explanations of the moral quagmire of Lee I have ever read. I share it in full. It is not that long.

Read it. Ponder it. It is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1928.

“Each year on the 19th of January {Lee’s birthday, BV} there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

Lee Memorial in Richmond, Va turned into a postcard. Contemporary with DuBois critique.

Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits not by falsifying his moral debacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.”

This should be read and reread and then read again. This my friends is the unvarnished truth.

2 Responses to “W. E. B. DuBois: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Monuments”

  1. Ammar Says:

    Preach Bobby! I will reference this in the Summit, it fits with one of my presentations about monumnets and attitudes.

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