General Lee portrait stirs up a fuss

Frank Cerabino / Cox Newspapers /


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —

Lee County is making a bid for the dubious distinction of being Florida’s next focal point of racial animus.

County commissioners there have been trying to ignore the fact that their legislative chamber’s signature piece of art is a large portrait of Robert E. Lee dressed in a Confederate uniform.

The local NAACP has requested either the removal of the portrait from the chamber or a change of clothing for Lee.

“The real issue is that Confederate uniform,” NAACP member Shirley Chapman explained to a local TV station. “Put him in a black suit.”

So far, the five-member board has been ignoring the local civil rights group.

And Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott turned down an invitation to be at a local NAACP awards banquet, in part because of the group’s complaint about the portrait coming soon after its support of the prosecution of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford.

“I find your resurrected fixation with the portrait of Robert E. Lee and the demand for its removal regrettable,” Scott wrote. “The timing so proximate to the Zimmerman race-baiting is certainly suspect.

“While I am not black, I continue to be amazed by what is deemed ‘racially offensive and/or insensitive’ and what is not. For example, the rampant use of the word ‘n—--’ (which he spelled out completely) in the wildly popular hip-hop culture that floods the ears of youth across this nation and is comprised primarily of black artists apparently stirs little to no emotion among blacks but the portrait of General Lee does?”

I don’t imagine that a Florida sheriff would berate his Jewish residents for being sensitive about the reverential display of a Nazi uniform. But there are, apparently, still parts of Florida where white sheriffs feel safe in telling their black citizens to quit being so uppity about the reverential display of the uniform of slavery.

And now to make matters worse, the Ku Klux Klan has weighed in this week, sending a letter of support for the Lee portrait remaining in the legislative chamber. The letter accuses the NAACP of “erasing our southern history, heritage and culture.”

“We are asking you to please ignore the political correct rhetoric and ranting of this group and stand up for our history and heritage by leaving the portrait of this great American in place for future generations to enjoy,” the letter said.

The Klan letter included an excerpt of correspondence that Lee wrote in 1856, in which he refers to slavery as “a moral and political evil,” but one that is up to God to end.

“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially,” Lee had written. “The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things.

“How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence,” he continued. “Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy.”

A recent biography of Lee by historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who had access to many of his private letters, showed Lee had inherited 196 slaves from his wife’s father, who willed them to Lee with the provision that they’d be set free within five years. Instead, Lee continued to work the slaves, and broke apart slave families by selling them to other owners, while petitioning the court to extend their servitude, Pryor found.

Twenty-two years after the end of the Civil War, Lee County was carved out of Monroe County and named after the Confederate general. His portrait has been on display there for the past 80 years.

Six years ago, the local NAACP tried to persuade the commission to hang a portrait of Abraham Lincoln alongside Lee. But the suggestion was rejected.

Maybe Lee County is trying to preserve Lee’s idea of “painful discipline” for black people, but it’s not going to work.

Sometimes old wounds don’t heal. Especially when it’s a wound that’s put on display and defended by the KKK.

Talk about race-baiting.

The protests and sit-ins in Tallahassee over the state’s “stand your ground” gun law after the Zimmerman case may just be a prelude to what’s in store for Lee County.