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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/12/18

Washington and Lee: What's in a Name?

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I'm very fortunate to live in Arlington, Virginia. It is by far the most progressive place in the entire state. Barack Obama got 70 percent here in both 2008 and 2012, and Republicans don't even bother to run for most offices. Arlington has the best parks in the state, the best schools, and it's routinely ranked as one of the best places in America to live, walk, bike, or work.

As blue as it has become, though, Virginia is still a southern state. And there are remnants of the shameful side of the South still around. Just by the Clarendon metro station, for example, in the center of Arlington's restaurant and entertainment district, is a statue honoring the county's war dead from World Wars I and II. But some names are separated from others and have a letter "C" after them. It's meant to denote "Colored," and it's meant to be exclusionary.

Similarly, the local high school is named Washington & Lee after George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Washington actually owned much of the land that now constitutes Arlington, including the property where my house sits. Robert E. Lee, though, is the favorite son because he "defended the state," "showed his love for Virginia," and "stood up to the federal government," as is taught in the state history classes here. I have to admit that it wasn't until I was 18 years old and moved to the Washington area that I realized not everybody in America is taught that Robert E. Lee was a traitor. Indeed, I was taught that what he did was the very definition of treason -- he "took up arms against his country in a time of war." But he's still very much a hero for many Virginians.

Still, Arlington has become progressive enough that enough people realize having the largest school in the county named after a pro-slavery traitor is the wrong message to send to the community. So a few months ago, the Arlington County School Board decided to rename the school. They appointed a board made up of a current high school student, a recent high school student, a resident of the neighborhood, a member of the school board, a member of the county council, and several members of the "community."

The discussions turned nasty almost immediately. Many Arlingtonians were furious at the prospect of disrespecting the great general. They came up with all the usual reasons: The Confederacy is a part of our history; Lee fought for states' rights, not slavery; why fix something that isn't broken? The eventual consensus was to keep the name Washington but to drop the name Lee. A further consensus was that everybody seemed to like calling the place W&L, so a search was done to find another person worthy of the honor whose last name started with the letter L. That meant that the first few names thrown into the hopper, like Mary McLeod Bethune and Martin Luther King would not be considered.

The anti-change people -- I don't yet want to call them racists -- saw a chance to take over the process. They came up with the idea to keep the name Washington & Lee, but to say that Lee was Robert E. Lee's father, Lighthorse Harry Lee, who had once served with George Washington during the Revolution and was an army general. They were slapped down.

In the end, after contentious and angry debate, the committee decided to change the name to Washington & Loving, after Mildred and Richard Loving. The Lovings were residents of a small Virginia village called Central Point. Richard was white, Mildred was black, and they fell in love. Mildred became pregnant at 18 and, because interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia and 15 other states, she and Richard went to Washington DC to marry. When they returned to Central Point, an anonymous tipster called the police, and the Lovings were arrested on a felony charge of violating the miscegenation laws, specifically "cohabiting as man and wife against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of Virginia." Richard was released quickly, but Mildred was held for more than a week. They pleaded guilty to the crime and both were sentenced to one year in prison. They were released, but only after promising to not enter the state of Virginia again for 25 years. They returned to Washington.

The Lovings started a family, but they became homesick. Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy protesting that she was banned from her home state only because she was married to a white man. Kennedy's office forwarded the letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, which decided to file a case. The ACLU appealed the Lovings' conviction, but the judge who convicted them, Leon Bazile, wrote, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix." The ACLU immediately appealed the decision. The case worked its way through the courts with the Lovings patiently waiting outside of Virginia. Finally, on June 12, 1967, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Interracial marriage was legal across the country.

The Lovings were simple people. They never sought the limelight. They only wanted to have the same rights that every other Virginian had. But they were willing to allow their lives to be dragged into the spotlight for the common good. They were selfless. They were quiet heroes who fought for something because they knew they were right and the government was wrong.

Richard Loving was killed by a drunk driver in 1975; the accident blinded Mildred in one eye. She rarely gave interviews after the court case, preferring to simply live in semi-anonymity. Still, these two humble people were accidental giants in the fight for civil and human rights, not just in Virginia, but across the country. At the very least, a simple high school could be named after them.

But there was surprising pushback -- surprising because this is 2018, not 1962. When a decision was made by the Arlington School Board to make the Washington & Loving recommendation, two committee members resigned immediately. One member, a W&L parent, said, "I am departing with disgust about a morally bankrupt process that has been directed, not facilitated." He said that the committee was "too racially fixated" and "a joke." He said the very name Loving was "a totally ridiculous and inappropriate name ... a joke, as far as I'm concerned." Another committee member said, "The rationale for them [the Lovings] was they wanted to be happy and they were willing to break the law to do so. These were not people of high stature. They didn't accomplish anything other than being in an interracial relationship."

Two years ago I would have told you that that kind of ugly, racist anger was an anomaly, especially in progressive Arlington. But it's not -- at least not anymore. Why? Because Donald Trump has emboldened people to come out with the worst parts of themselves. After all these years, after all the progress of the past half-century, it's OK to be racist again. And it's OK to be public about it. It's OK to carry tiki torches through the streets of one of the most progressive college towns in the state shouting "Jews will not replace us!" It's OK to strip funding for schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our poorest cities. And it's OK once again to pretend that a traitor, a man who took up arms against his country, a man who had (or more specifically whose wife had) slaves and who was cruel to them should be honored and venerated.

It's one thing to oppose Donald Trump because you don't like his policy toward Iran or Cuba, or to disagree with him on education or his refusal to recognize the problem of climate change. It's an entirely different thing, however, to once again pit Americans against each other because of the color of their skin or because of one's own feelings of racial superiority.

Donald Trump has done that to us. We can't forget it.


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John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA and two years in a federal prison for blowing the whistle on the agency's use of torture. He served on John Kerry's Senate Foreign Relations Committee for two years as senior investigator into the Middle (more...)

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