Martin Luther King, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee: Civil Rights Advocates

While I applaud high school senior Jen Veldhuyzen of Colonial Forge High School for taking the initiative to write for her local newspaper I have to wonder who is teaching her and where she is getting her information.  Jen’s thesis: Martin Luther King would not mind sharing a holiday with Lee and Jackson.  Why?  Because all three strove to confront racism in their own times:

Lee did not merely  speak
against racism, though–he released all his slaves 10 years before the
war. Most of them stayed on at his plantation, and one even became his
cook during the war.

Lee taught his family to appreciate people of other colors–like
King’s activists years later, Lee’s daughter was arrested for violating
Jim Crow laws in the South. According to the 1902 Cleveland Gazette,
she reportedly "persisted in occupying a car set apart for
Afro-Americans," and the mayor found her guilty of violating the law.

"Stonewall" Jackson did not speak much about slavery–he lived against it, instead.

Jackson did not understand what flaw of society placed people of
color in positions of servitude–nor did he care what society said. He
was known for being eccentric and forceful with his opinions, and he
lived them out.

Every Sunday, while in his hometown of Lexington, Jackson quietly
broke the law by teaching a class of black students to read and write.
After his death, when the Union Army occupied Lexington, citizens took
care to hide the Confederate flag formerly marking Jackson’s grave.
They were surprised later to find flowers, a note and a small
Confederate flag placed at his tombstone by a boy from one of his
classes.

Jackson would always be remembered by his students, not as a racist
or a military man, but as a strict champion of black literacy. I do not
believe that Martin Luther King Jr. would have objections to sharing a
weekend with a man who supported African-American education.

Well, I don’t know if King would mind sharing a day with two slave owners who fought a war in the name of a nation whose primary goal was the protection of slavery.  I suspect that King might have a short list of names from the war and Reconstruction that he would have preferred.  Perhaps Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Hiram Revels, Blanche K. Bruce and later, W.E.B. Dubois.  Jen is clearly picking up on a trend that is growing louder, which seeks to address and often remove issues of race and slavery by concluding that white Southerner slaveholders/Confederates were actually the best "friends" of black Americans.   The comparison with Lee and Jackson is instructive on another level as it assumes that King would have anything at all to say about their civil rights records.  I suspect that he would look at you askance and move on in the face of such a suggestion. Lee’s postwar record as president of Washington College and his handling of racial tensions in Lexington is available to anyone who cares to consider history rather than fantasy.  As for Jackson, someone needs to explain to me what teaching your own slaves to read has to do with civil rights at all. 

9 thoughts on “Martin Luther King, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee: Civil Rights Advocates

  1. Tim Lacy

    Kevin,

    I wonder if you shouldn’t be using CWM to flog the Free-Lance Star editor who published the letter? Did the editor seek the counter-opinion of a qualified historian? What of the young lady’s school teacher?

    I agree that this is nuts, but let’s put the proper folks on the spot. And of course I’m not saying that you flogged the girl—she’s just an example of faulty Civil War memories at work.

    - Tim

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  2. Brooks Simpson

    Correct me if I’m wrong: King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, not the chapel at W&L or the Custis-Lee Mansion.

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  3. Kevin

    Tim, — I agree with you entirely. The student in question is a product of her teachers and family. That said, I did not direct my remarks specifically at the student so hopefully it will not be taken personally.

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  4. Jen Veldhuyzen

    I really appreciate that you even saw my article and I am curious to learn more. I am entirely new to this debate because I was assigned the article and the angle by my editor–I had no prior design or even a choice in opinion. Another girl was assigned the other side–it was published in the same paper. I know you do a lot of research on the Civil War, so I would like some of your sources? I was wondering how I can access the Washington College records. Thanks so much!

    I can send you my references to their biographies and to the historical documents if you like, because as far as I know neither Lee nor Jackson were slave owners. I can also send you references of Congressional failures leading up to the Civil War that show that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery, but also about state’s rights. Again, thank you so much for your input.

    However, one clarification–all my teachers are very liberal and would probably not approve of my article’s thesis, so please do not blame them for any of my mistakes. Also, I did not say that white southerners were the best friends of black slaves. I acknowledge the horrible treatment African Americans received and I believe that in their memory, we should focus on combating slavery worldwide today in Mauritania, Sudan, Indonesia, and in many other countries.

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  5. Kevin

    Hi Jen, — Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my post. I have to say that I was impressed by the fact that a high school senior would take the initiative to to craft such an editorial. I wish I could get my own students to write for a public audience. Finally, I am relieved to know that you did not take my comments personally and I probably should not have assumed anything about your teachers or family. As to sources I have a few suggestions.

    On R.E. Lee you should pick up a copy of Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s _Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Letters_: http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Man-Portrait-Through-Private/dp/0670038296/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1200522656&sr=8-1
    This is the single best study of Lee. I should note that both Lee and Jackson were slaveholders. As for Jackson you will want to look at James I. Robertson’s biography which is long, but well worth the time. There is a great deal of nonsense out there so you must be careful.

    There is no doubt that the constitutional question of states’ rights was important, but the debate centered around questions of slavery and the expansion of slavery. After all, what right were white southerners defending in the 1850s? If you read their own words they claimed it was the right to own slaves along with the demand that the federal government acknowledge and protect their property. Recent historical scholarship is pretty much in agreement on this point. I would recommend you pick up a short book by Charles Dew titled _Apostles for Disunion_.

    Finally, I did not mean to suggest that you believe that white southerners thought of themselves as friends of slaves, but that your editorial echoed those who have tried to make just this point. Thanks again for taking the time to write. Good luck with your studies and feel free to respond to any of my posts. There is nothing like opening a thoughtful comment from one of my readers.

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  6. John Shepherd

    Kevin,

    In addition to the references you cited for Ms. Veldhuyzen, I would add _What This Cruel War Was Over_ by Chandra Manning. Manning analyzes the contemporary letters of both union and confederate soldiers to determine the role of slavery and race in their motivations. The results are very interesting.

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  7. Kevin

    John, — Thanks for the reference. Chandra’s book is an excellent reference. I read the dissertation version before the book’s publication and even took part in an AHA panel on Civil War soldiers with Chandra. It’s an excellent study.

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  8. Alex

    While I believe that the students claims are greatly exaggerated, there’s also some fallacies on your part. Jackson didn’t teach his slaves to read, he defied law and taught blacks to read in general. He also schooled them in religion. Lee also freed his slaves. Research will show that both men supported emancipation(much like King would have) but in a time when the economy could handle it. Also, the war wasn’t fought over slavery. Don’t be a sheep educated solely from the history books.

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  9. Kevin Levin

    You are correct in pointing out that Jackson’s Sunday School classes reached out to his slaves as well as free blacks in Lexington. That said, your comparison with King is a bit far fetched given the slight difference in race (LOL). As far as your last comment is concerned I think I will stick with the books for awhile as I know of no other way to learn about the past. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Reply

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