Our public buildings should be named for people of great accomplishments who are role models of good behavior, morals and principles. Unfortunately, some public places in California still honor Confederate leaders who split the country in two to preserve slavery.
I don’t want to erase their names from our history books; I just don’t want our children looking up to people who fought for a system that treated humans as chattel.
This is the basis for my legislation, Senate Bill 539, the Frederick Douglass Liberty Act, which seeks to remove names of elected and military leaders of the Confederacy from public places, including parks, buildings, roadways and schools. Douglass was an escaped slave who became a truly historic figure in his activism against slavery.
The killing of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina last month stunned all of us. I asked whether we could undertake constructive steps in California to discourage any embrace of the racist values of the Confederacy. I was surprised to learn that there are two California schools named for Gen. Robert E. Lee, that local streets have been named after Confederate leaders and that plaques honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis have been placed throughout the state by United Daughters of the Confederacy.
My legislation is not an answer to systemic racism permeating American society. It does nothing to fund programs to improve racial tolerance. It simply shines a light on some overlooked examples where we are improperly celebrating traitorous leaders – even those who led what could be considered honorable lives before or after the Civil War.
It is my hope that my legislation inspires people to re-examine any ties Californians may have with the Confederacy. That includes the city of Fort Bragg.
SB 539, which cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee last week and is before the appropriations committee, does not require the city bearing the name of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg to change its name. But I hope city leaders engage in a serious conversation about why his name is worthy of the wonderful people who live there. They can rationalize that he wasn’t a bad person when the town was first named for him. But substitute Bragg for other historical figures who were at first “good men” before their treacherous behavior, and that warped thinking reveals itself.
Would renaming schools bearing Robert E. Lee’s name rob communities of their history, as some suggest? Not in my view.
The sad irony is that the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Long Beach has large numbers of African American, Latino and Asian American students. Shouldn’t we give them the dignity of learning under a name of which they can be proud? Why not rename it Frederick Douglass Elementary School?
Stripping Lee’s name would be empowering and educational. It would teach children to understand and appreciate history and that they have the power to right wrongs, take action and control one’s own destiny.
At times, it seems we’ve forgotten the profound significance of the Civil War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s true that time hasn’t healed all of the war wounds. However, the moral righteousness of that struggle for human dignity is even clearer today.
The massacre in South Carolina shocked me into reflection, inquiry and action. Yes, my legislation would remove some of the last remnants of a time when Californians celebrated Confederate leaders. But Civil War history will always be available in our textbooks and museums.
It is my hope that the conversation surrounding my legislation has inspired people to continue to look for ways to make our communities more tolerant and understanding of each other while we move closer to a more perfect union.
Steve Glazer, a Democrat from Orinda, represents the 7th Senate District.