To the editor:
As an avid reader of these opinion pages, I can’t help but notice that the commentary on renaming Lee Street has coalesced around a particular side of the issue. Allow me to offer a different view: We should rename Lee Street as soon as possible.
The arguments of the pro-Lee crowd have been both imaginative in scope and creative in their obfuscation of America’s original sin. We’ve been asked to engage in a fan-fictionesque meditation on whether Lee would have been a Nazi – as if “well, at least he wasn’t a Nazi” should be our standard for street naming.
Our residents and tourists of Asian descent have been invited to pretend the street really honors them: the old “it’s really Bruce Lee Street” argument. We have had faulty procedural arguments of looming administrative chaos. No, the city’s 25% threshold for renaming controversial streets will not lead to ping-ponging petitions to rename the street, because once changed to something like Water Street, it will no longer qualify for the city’s lower threshold for controversial names. We’ve had constitutional arguments that sound like veiled threats of frivolous litigation – no, the long-deceased Lee does not have a constitutional right to continue to have a street named after him, and neither do you.
Let’s take a step back here, folks. Should our city’s places of honor really be named for people whose failings require this much explaining away and after-the-fact justification? No one disputes the need to acknowledge and remember our city’s, and indeed our country’s, troubled history. But we don’t need to name streets after Confederate generals to do that, any more than we need to remember Benjamin Thomas and the city’s sad history of lynching by naming a street after his lynchers. Or to remember imprisoned suffragists by erecting a monument to their torturers. Let’s be more forthright in our choices as a community than that.
It has also been argued that we should keep the Lee name to honor certain other perceived qualities of the man or his family. The latter is essentially a variation of the Bruce Lee argument to just pretend it’s named after someone else. To be clear: The undeniable fact that Robert E. Lee took up a cause which, if successful, would have led to the continued enslavement of millions of human beings should permanently disgrace and condemn his name in the eyes of any American citizen who values their own freedom.
The days when it was acceptable to elide over the human tragedy that was slavery with the snide fig leaf of “states’ rights” are over. So are the days when it was acceptable to honor slavers, whether because of or in spite of their slaver status. Stripping the Lee name from our city’s places of honor will be a step toward acknowledging this reality. Let’s do so without further delay.
-Helen Mayer Clark, Alexandria