2 years after pledge to rename schools to Confederate names, students wonder when change will come
Shortly after the United States Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools in 1954, Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama opened.
Brown vs. Board Education angered white segregationists at the time, and the school and others across the South were the result of opposition to desegregation. Decades later, controversial buildings, particularly Confederate monuments and schools named after Confederate figures, throughout the South have been the subject of debate. Montgomery – the birthplace of the civil rights movement – is no different.
In response to the death of George Floyd in 2020, many of these districts across the South and beyond pledged to rename schools that were named after Confederate leaders. More than two years after the American racial reckoning, some have been renamed.
But in Montgomery — an 80% African American school district — the names of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Sidney Lanier remain on three high schools.
When protesters tore down the statue of Robert E. Lee outside the school that bears his name in 2020, Clare Weil, president of the county school board, called it a watershed moment.
“When it happened, it was kind of a wake-up call for all of us that it was time. It’s time to take care of some old business,” she told CNN. Robert E. Lee High School was named in 1954 right after Brown vs. Board of Education Jeff Davis was named in 1968 right after integration These were all heinous acts in my opinion, and it was time for a change these names.
But school board member Lesa Keith said changing the names would be more divisive than helpful. “My perception of all of this is that it has divided us as a board and it has divided us as a city,” Keith said.
Despite Keith’s objection, the school board had enough votes to change the names of the three schools in July 2020. But since then, not much has happened.
The Reverend John Gilchrist, one of the name change committee members, said the committee — which includes community leaders as well as student representatives from Montgomery’s three high schools — formed in April 2021 and members were selected by the chair of the school board.
Gilchrist, whose son graduated from school in 2015, also said a name change was trivial unless the focus was also on improving education and the school system.
“It’s more than just a name change. And then by changing the name, what does it promote? What is the name for? By changing the name, will it improve education? By changing the name, will it improve the safety of children? By changing the name, will it increase the benefits for teachers, better equipment? By changing the name, will that do all that?
The Sidney Lanier School alumni association was also against the school’s renaming, arguing that Lanier, a poet who served in the Confederate Army, was inappropriately grouped with Davis and Lee, reported the Montgomery Advertiser. Earlier this year, the school board voted to finally merge Lanier High School with another, removing the need for a new name.
Just weeks into his term, Superintendent Melvin Brown is determined to make the names disappear. And while he’s aware of grievances from some school board members and alumni that renaming schools erases history or is part of the heritage of some white Southerners, he says the community needs to be honest about the complexity of these stories.
Brown grew up in Lee’s birthplace of Westmoreland County, Virginia.
“I learned this story as soon as I could speak,” Brown said. “But knowing that story was not necessarily taught in a complete and accurate way, and completely given as a whole after doing my own reading over the years and knowing both sides of the story.”
Lee may have been “a brilliant military tactician… At the same time, he was a slaver. At the same time, he led a rebellion against his own country,” Brown said.
Even among historians, Lee’s tactics have come under scrutiny, including his leadership style on the battlefield and his penchant for unnecessary aggression. Like other Confederate leaders, he suffered from poor maps and unprepared personnel, but he also created his own problems, wrote historian Joseph Glatthaar, who has written numerous books on the military, including two on Lee.
“His most glaring problem was repeating a mistake that emerged during his initial campaign: Lee tried to coordinate too many independent columns. He overloaded himself and his staff. … Which Lee achieved in the audacity of plan and combat aggressiveness, he diminished it through ineffective command and control,” Glatthaar wrote in “Partners in Command: The Relationship Between Leaders in the Civil War.”
But for supporters of the name changes, it’s how the Montgomery schools got their name that they say is crucial to understand.
The Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) — a nonprofit whose mission is to fight racial and economic injustice — says Lee High School was named in 1954 in retaliation for Brown vs. Board of Education , which ended “separate but equal” in American schools.
And Jefferson Davis High School was named in 1968, right after integration, according to a 2020 EJI report.
“A federal court later observed, however, that the school was clearly intended to serve only white children: it was located ‘in a predominantly white section of Montgomery,’ was built to accommodate only ‘the number of white students residing in the general neighborhood,’ and featured ‘a school name and school crest [featuring the Confederate battle flag] that are designed to give the impression that it is a predominantly white school,” according to the report.
The EJI reports that nationally, coordinated efforts were made in the 1950s and 1960s to combat efforts for racial equality.
“Many schools were given Confederate-themed names…as Southern states mounted what they called “massive resistance,” a coordinated effort by governors, lawmakers, and other white leaders to resist the ‘racial mainstreaming of public schools,’ the EJI report says.
Today, seniors at the now mostly black Robert E. Lee High School told CNN that change is long overdue.
“We just have to cut all ties,” said 17-year-old Z’karia Marshall.
Arianna Brooks, 17, echoed the same sentiment. “It has to happen now. It has to change.”
In Atlanta, Forrest Hills Academy — named after Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest — is now Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Lee Magnet School is now the Liberty Magnet School.
But in Montgomery, one of the main hurdles holding up the school board is the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, which prohibits the “moving, removal, alteration, renaming, or other disturbance of any monument on the property.” Public” for 40 years or more, signed in 2017 by Governor Kay Ivey.
Earlier this year, an Alabama legislative committee introduced two bills aimed at further protecting Confederate monuments and criminalizing those who attempt to remove them. Under one of the proposed bills, the fine for removing a monument would increase from a flat $25,000 to $5,000 for each day a monument is not restored.
Weil said if they changed the school’s name without getting state approval, they could face hefty fines.
“If we can’t get a pass from them, funds have been raised to pay those fines,” she said.
And it would take more money to change everything from signage to letterhead to uniforms. It’s a price the school district hasn’t determined.
But as superintendent, Brown says whatever the cost, it will be worth it: “There is no price too high for us to help children and their welfare.”