Robert E. Lee’s picture has been restored to a mural display along Richmond’s Canal Walk. As I reported last month (“Letter From Virginia: The Battle of Richmond,” Correspondence), City Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin had declared that General Lee’s picture is “offensive to blacks” and had threatened to call a boycott of the Canal Walk unless the picture were removed. Panicked, James E. Rogers, president of the Richmond Historic Riverfront Foundation, immediately obeyed.
The backlash was furious. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans picketed the Canal Walk, and citizens flooded newspapers with angry phone calls. Reeling, the foundation formed a multicultural citizens’ committee to study the proposed murals. The committee recommended that Lee be portrayed in civilian dress, instead of in his military uniform. They added eight new images, including those of Father Abraham in Richmond in 1865 and Powhatan Beaty, a black Medal of Honor recipient. The proposed murals were displayed in a civic center, and the public was invited to comment. After more than 800 people offered their opinions, the murals were finally approved. The recommendation was generally well received: A Richmond Times Dispatch poll found that a vast majority of all races—81 percent—supported displaying the picture of Lee.
If racial harmony was his objective, El-Amin could have surrendered to public opinion and dropped his opposition. Instead, he proposed that the City Council order the removal of all the pictures, claiming that “white supremacy underlies the whole issue.” He called any white person who disagreed with him a “racist and any black, an “Uncle Tom.”
Ignoring El-Amin’s race-baiting rhetoric, the council defeated his proposal eight to one. Infuriated, the Coalition for Racial Justice announced that its members would “shun” two black councilmen, including W. R. “Bill” Johnson, Jr., because they “voted with the white folks,” They picked on the wrong man. Johnson, a former Marine, asked, “Who are they to tell us who we can or can’t talk to—like we’re a bunch of sheep?” He added that “Folk need to have a little gumption. It’s the same thing with dealing with a bully. You take so much, then take it to him. Once you do, you’ll find a paper tiger.”
As Orwell cautioned, history is written by those with power, and it is power—not “reconciliation,” “tolerance,” “diversity,” “harmony,” or “equality”—that the El-Amins of the world desire. Who might be the next target, as their appetite for cultural destruction is whetted? Unless Americans of all races stand united against these demagogues, we may find that we have no history left.