Robert E. Lee, MLK, and How We Tell Our History
Two new histories about changing our hearts and minds
Two recent books tackle two very different American figures who towered over their respective centuries, and both books force us as readers to ask questions about the way that we remember each. Because in the case of Robert E. Lee, certain elements of society have immortalized a man who fought to ensure that men like Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t be free. When it comes to MLK we don’t realize how close the police came to lynching him, far from the eyes of the world. One book focuses on the macro view of Lee and the Lost Cause, while the other is a lengthy treatment of an incident that historians often reduce to a footnote in King’s story.
Reckoning with the ‘Lost Cause’
‘Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause’ is a document of author Ty Seidule’s childhood worship of Lee, the man who exemplified for him what being a “Southern Christian gentleman” meant. Seidule, who rose to the rank of Colonel in the Army himself and became a history professor at West Point, documents not only Lee’s life but his own. The inspiration that Lee provided turned to horror when Seidule began to confront the reasons for the Confederacy’s very existence.
Raised to believe that the South was fighting simply for “states’ rights,” Seidule began to rethink that view when he dug deeper into the history of the Civil War and read documents from many of the Confederacy’s leading figures (including Lee) which stated in no uncertain terms that slavery and the white supremacist beliefs that sustained it were the cause for the South’s actions. Seidule writes with passion about his past belief in Lee and the myth of the Lost Cause (which was just a myth), and how his own research into the question forced him to re-evaluate his thinking.
Robert E. Lee took up arms against the very country he’d sworn to defend, Seidule argues, and for that reason alone we shouldn’t laud him in the form of statues, much less colleges, towns, and other places named for him or other Confederates who also took up arms against the United States. This is the kind of statement that, coming from a Northerner, might not carry much weight with Southerners inculcated with the Lost Cause from their childhood on down. But Seidule, who was once a true believer in Lee as an “upstanding gentleman,” has done his homework, and his conclusions are that Lee was not only a traitor but a white supremacist.
Far from changing his ways after the war, Robert E. Lee strived to continue discriminating against Black Americans because he refused to see them as fellow human beings. Seidule pulls no punches in his assessment of Lee. With the recent wave of Confederate monuments activists are targeting for removal, his analysis helps many groups opposed to those monuments make their case even more persuasive.
The race to save MLK
‘Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and Win the 1960 Election,’ by Stephen and Paul Kendrick, takes on the story of an event that historians rarely mention except as a footnote in the story of MLK and the Presidential election of that year. He spent time behind bars after his arrest for participating in a sit-in at an Atlanta department store. The Kennedy brothers tried to get him released before suffered a gruesome fate in the backroads of Georgia. As the Kendricks show, the story of that arrest and imprisonment is much more dramatic and fraught with peril (as well as political calculation) as any in America’s civil-rights history.
King didn’t even lead that sit-in. Student activists invited him to participate, but by virtue of his celebrity he was the high-profile arrestee. The state of Georgia was not in a forgiving mood when a judge one county over used the technicality of an out-of-state license as a pretext to ship King in the dead of night to the notorious prison at Reidville. Any number of guards or white inmates could easily have gotten away with King’s murder if they’d wanted to, and his wife Coretta was bereft of hope of seeing her husband alive again.
The Kennedys’ intervention was actually the result of clever manipulation on the part of members of their civil-rights outreach, in particular Harris Wofford (a friend of King’s) and Louis Martin (who would go on to serve as a civil-rights advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson). If not for their efforts and occasional subterfuge, John F. Kennedy wouldn’t have made the phone call to Coretta that the Democratic Party immortalized as a sign of its new openness to racial justice. Considering that Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s number two, had been the one to seek King’s friendship in the late Fifties, it was never a given that Black voters would ever turn to the Democrats, especially in the South.
Nixon had his own friend involved in social justice, Frederic Morrow, who desperately tried to get the vice president to comment. But Kennedy’s call, followed by King’s release from jail, served notice that the Republicans were no longer “the party of Lincoln.” The Kendricks show that, perhaps more than Kennedy’s action, it was Nixon’s inaction (a precursor to his “Southern strategy” in 1968) that doomed his chances of winning in 1960. King, energized by his stay in prison, would often be arrested again and again during the remaining years of his life, and use his imprisonment as testimony to the injustices perpetrated against Blacks in America who were far less well known than himself.
Both ‘Robert E. Lee and Me’ and ‘Nine Days’ are fascinating documents of how people can change their hearts and minds to embrace the calls for social justice and recognition of a shared humanity. Both books will reward any reader with insights into what history can mean, and why it’s important to keep writing history.
(Robert E. Lee and Me St. Martin’s Press, January 26, 2021)
(Nine Days, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 12, 2021)