Lee descendant urges official removal of Confederate statues

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The Rev. Bob Lee testifies during a House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 21, 2020, to consider bills to remove Confederate statues. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Democratic lawmakers and others urged official removal of Confederate monuments at the center of a politically fraught national debate, saying Tuesday that slow action was leading protesters to try to topple statues of defenders of slavery themselves.

A descendant of Confederate military commander Robert E. Lee was among those joining Black historians at a hearing of the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands to urge passage of legislation addressing Confederate statues at national parks and other federal sites. One of the bills would remove a statue of Lee erected this century at the battlefield of Antietam, the site of the deadliest day of fighting in the Civil War.

It’s one of a series of related measures coming before Congress as some demonstrators spray-paint or try to haul down statues of Confederate figures and slave holders, during months of broader national protests that have brought the issue of racism to the forefront of the national conversation.

President Donald Trump has responded by ordering mobilization of federal agencies to protect Confederate statues and other federal property, blaming “wise guys, anarchists and looters ... indiscriminately ripping down our statues.”

Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., described the Civil War tributes as a daily affront to Black Americans.

“Every time I pass by one of these, every time I drive down Robert E. Lee highway, it makes me think the republic has done ... an injustice,” Smith told lawmakers Tuesday. When it comes to authorities doing something about the symbols of the Confederacy, for some activists, “it’s taken us so long to get that done, they’re starting to take that into their own hands,” Smith said. “There is some urgency.”

The Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of the South’s military leader in the Civil War, cited his forebear’s testimony before Congress after the Civil War as evidence of the Confederate leader's unfitness for commemorative monuments.

In 1866, the Confederate leader urged lawmakers not to allow Black suffrage. Black people of the time, the general testified before Congress, “cannot vote intelligently” and it would “lead to embarrassments.”

“We cannot remain silent anymore,” Robert W. Lee testified Tuesday. “If we do so, our silence becomes agreement and endorsement to complicity.”

Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican and senior GOP lawmaker on the subcommittee, said he welcomed Tuesday's civil debate on what historical figures should be commemorated on public lands.

But Curtis and a historian from the conservative Heritage Foundation denounced attacks on a small number of statues around the country this year as the work of mobs.

“I hope we all agree that vandalism is never the answer, especially when there is a legal route to change," Curtis said. "While there have been some high-profile vandalism of Confederate statues and memorials, other acts of vandalism have targeted more broadly supported statues.”

The focus on the hundreds of monuments around the U.S. honoring Confederate figures, and on the naming of military bases and other public sites after them, comes after a spring of massive street protests following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota.

Trump increasingly has come out in defense of the Confederate statues and other historical tributes to the Civil War’s defeated side. In one tweet, he called the monuments part of “our History & Heritage, both the good and the bad.” Trump has demanded action against crowds that threaten statues on federal property as part of his stepped-up emphasis for law and order.

For those questioning removal of Confederate statues, historian Christy Coleman testified, the question is: “Where would you like to go to place the monuments to the people who kidnapped your children, your ancestors, beat, raped, killed them?”

Democrats pointed out that most of the statues being targeted now were erected well after the Civil War, as opponents to Black civil rights were imposing sweeping new restrictions on African Americans at the turn of the 19th century, and opposing equal rights again in the 1950s.

Another of the bills would permanently remove the statue of Confederate officer Albert Pike from a Washington, D.C., square. Demonstrators badly damaged it last month, leading to its temporary removal. Trump condemned the damage, calling the statue a “beautiful piece of art.”