January 19 was the 217th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee in Stratford, Virginia. January 15 was also the 95th anniversary of the birth of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia.
I have recently asked myself if it would ever be possible to reconcile these two disparate anniversaries of a former Confederate general and mid-20th century civil rights leader?
The quick answer is no, but is it?
A superficial of the two men would show that they had very little in common.
Lee was an aristocratic slave holder while King was a descendant of slaves. Lee was a West Point general while King was a prophetic pastor. Lee accepted the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery, while King fought for African American civil rights.
Lee was certainly no advocate for African American civil rights, but to his credit he was an undeniable proponent of peace and national reconciliation after his surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Likewise, King was a strong proponent of peace and national reconciliation ninety years later, but from a totally different perspective.
Lee, a former West Point superintendent (1852-55), became the president of a nearly bankrupt Washington College in Lexington on August 4, 1865 until his death on October 12, 1870.
Lee’s postbellum presidency at this small obscure college in the southern Shenandoah valley of western Virginia has certainly shown him in a much more positive light than many bitter and unreconcilable former Confederates. These would include such men as Nathan Bedford Forrest, John B. Gordon and Jefferson Davis.
Lee’s advocacy of peace and national unity after Appomattox along with his tremendous influence among the former Confederate officer corps and enlisted men greatly enabled Grant to campaign with the slogan “Let us have peace” in the presidential election of 1868.
Unfortunately, Lee died during the fifth year of Reconstruction in his sixth year as the president of Washington College, and never lived long enough to fully voice his views on segregation and Jim Crow in the new South and throughout the United States, which were anathema to King.
Two weeks ago, I read an insightful commentary written by Jim Bacon in Bacon’s Rebellion entitled, “The War Over Robert E. Lee Never Ends.” He lamented the loss of numerous equestrian statues depicting Lee in both Virginia and Washington, D.C., the renaming of Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University and the removal of four bronze plaques dedicated to either Lee or his “traitorous” horse Traveller (1857-71) along with the gelding’s headstone at the same university.
Bacon especially lamented the attack on Virginia’s Robert E. Lee license plate, which the General Assembly approved in 2007. He stated that Delegate Candi King (D-Woodbridge) recently introduced legislation that would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to “prohibit the issuance of license plates that make reference to the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, or any other prominent Confederate leader.”
Instead of abolishing Virginia’s Robert E. Lee license plate, which was used by almost two thousand vehicles in 2021, I think that a new one should be issued emphasizing Lee’s postbellum contributions to education, peace, and national unity.
I think that an acceptable license plate would be one, which replaces Lee’s present picture with the famous Matthew Brady photograph of him, which was taken on April 16, 1865. That is because that picture of Lee standing as a weary civilian on the back porch of his Franklin Street home in Richmond truly symbolizes the de facto end of the Civil War.
I would also remove the underlying phrase below the present picture, which states, “Virginia Gentleman 1807-1870,” and replace it with “April 16, 1865” while keeping the silhouette of him sitting on Traveller in the center background of the license plate. I would also not change the color of the letters and the silhouette.
The last major change that I would make would be to replace the phrase “GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE” with “ROBERT E. LEE 1865-1870” at the bottom of the license plate. I would also not change the color of the uppercase letters.
In my opinion, this new design of Virginia’s Robert E. Lee license plate would leave no doubt that Lee was rightfully being honored as a postbellum Washington College president, educator and proponent of national unity and reconciliation after his surrender at Appomattox.
I think that this revision of the Robert E. Lee license plate would not only be more visually appealing and less inflammatory, it would also increase the respect for Lee for what he did after Appomattox from 1865 to 1870 among all Americans, who live both within and outside of Virginia.
If the United States can fully forgive Emperor Hirohito of fascist Japan, who actively participated in World War II and was politically rehabilitated from 1945 to 1989, it can forgive Lee.
– Robert L. Maronic