White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly pauses as he speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. The retired general received pushback for praising Confederate commander Robert E. Lee. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The Trump administration appears to have soft spot for the Confederacy.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is the latest person to attempt to protect the legacy of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, after a historic church in Alexandria decided to remove a pair of plaques from its sanctuary memorializing Lee and another former member, George Washington, who enslaved hundreds of black people on his estate.
Conversations about race continued in some Christian communities following the 2016 election, during which the topic was a common theme. Members of Christ Church said the topic took on an increased urgency after the events in Charlottesville in August.
In a letter sent to church members, church leaders explained that the decision came after much deliberation.
“This was not a discussion we entered into lightly, but rather a sincere attempt to have a family conversation about our worship space, our larger history and our future,” church leaders wrote.
But Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, seemed to imply that the conversation is settled and that Lee’s legacy is a positive one.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
“I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as, as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong,” he said. “You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then.”
As some Americans, including descendants of those who fought for the Confederacy, seek to preserve the legacies of their ancestors, they rationalize the decision to fight to preserve an institution that treated black people as subhuman.
But pushback to Kelly isn’t solely — or even primarily — rooted in politics. The concern with Kelly’s statement is how historically inaccurate it is.
One person pushing back on the legacy of the Confederacy is the Rev. Rob E. Lee, who is an indirect descendant of the Confederate general and an anti-racism activist.
“It is clear to me that General Kelly sees honor in a man who fought for continued enslavement of people and chattel slavery,” Lee told the Fix. “That is, after all, what states’ rights was for. There is no honor in that to me. John Kelly would be best to keep our president from tweeting and enacting racist policies, rather than engaging in a debate over the racist past of the South.”
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted a thread criticizing Kelly’s attempt to write history in a way that does not accurately portray how much compromise was actually a part of the Civil War.
Shocking that someone charged with defending their country, in some profound way, does not comprehend the country they claim to defend.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 31, 2017
Journalist Jamil Smith dismissed the narrative that Kelly, who refused to apologize to after he mischaracterized a 2015 speech by Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) during a White House news briefing earlier this month, would bring truth to an administration led by a president known for dishonesty.
Enough about John Kelly being the “adult in the room.” He’s out here praising Robert E. Lee and falsifying history. pic.twitter.com/22BXNOqSMt
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) October 31, 2017
Kelly’s “both sides” equivocation is a familiar argument in the administration. Trump blamed both sides — white supremacists and anti-racism protesters — for the violence in Charlottesville.
“I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it,” Trump said days after the riots.
“You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he added. “No one wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now: You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”
Most Americans — 56 percent — viewed Trump’s comments negatively, but that didn’t keep Trump from doubling down on them even after Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the only black senator in Trump’s party, challenged him to further educate himself on the story of blacks in America.
And Vice President Pence dismissed efforts to remove Confederate monuments as “some contemporary political cause.”
Kelly’s most recent comments are a reminder that the debate over America’s enslavement of black people continues in both the church and the top levels of governments.
When John Kelly was brought into the White House, many Americans suspected that he would unite a team reportedly divided by tribalism and differing worldviews. Instead, some are now accusing Kelly of exacerbating the divisions existing across America — starting in the White House.