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Honor Among Scouts

Atif Z. Qadir

“American history has very few people who have represented honor and integrity such as him. His fame is worldwide. Everything [for] which he stood are virtues [to] which all people should subscribe.” Which famous American is being lauded in this statement? Washington? King? Lincoln? How about Robert E. Lee? Recently, the executive board of the Boy Scouts of America’s Robert E. Lee Council No. 602 decided to remove the Civil War general’s name from its identifier and uniform patch. This directly affects approximately 22,000 scouts and 7,500 adult leaders in the Richmond, Virginia area. Interestingly, representatives of the council scoff at the notion that this is an example of political correctness, while opponents say that political correctness is the only reason.

The most vocal proponents of the executive board’s decision to rename Council No. 602 include the NAACP. King S. Khalfani, the head of Virginia’s NAACP declared that “it is something whose time has truly come. Because [the name] has been a sticking point for many in the African-American community, and many progressives and non-confederate-loving whites.” The council’s leader, Robert A. Tuggle, waffles on the issue by saying such contradictory statements as “it was the right thing to do” and “changing the name has nothing to do with the character or opinions of Lee.” He insists that “we want a name that is more geographically descriptive -- people will know what part of the country we’re in.”

Such an excuse belies the fundamental reason, which is to eliminate the connection to the confederate army, and thus slavery. Although it said that states’ rights, not slavery, were the main contention of the Civil War, this should not marginalize the largest and most well-organized form of racial oppression in American history. It is impossible to separate an army from the conditions and ambitions of its state, and thus excuse soldiers and army officials for “just doing what they were told to do.” This free pass from associative guilt is what allows Robert E. Lee to be considered a “hero” today. Even in loss, the New South’s political and economic slavery, including Jim Crow laws, voting restrictions, and the convict-lease program, as in Parchman Penitentiary, were equally perverse. What then does dropping the name really mean to accomplish?

Opponents of the decision actually recognize this as a political one, but are disappointed that “scouts have taken the easy way out,” though it is unclear what the “hard way” would be. Brag Bowling, the commander of the state’s division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans went on to call the action “shameful.” Such a racially and morally charged statement is an example of the majority projecting its opinions and history (one scout leader noted that the name “is a tradition that goes back a long way”) as those of the entire society. Opponents are correct in not wanting the name changed, but arrived to it with incorrect logic.

The Boy Scouts of America should not remove the name because doing so would be creating an alibi to forget a shameful period of United States history. In attempting to de-politicize their organization’s moniker, the Robert E. Lee Council of the Boy Scouts of America is shirking the burden of memory and abetting the expansion of historical vacuum. Similar questions haunted post-WWII Berlin, where the conundrum was how to de-Nazify buildings and built environments. One option often taken in Berlin was the dedication of the places of perpetrators to the honor of their victims. Such historical self-flagellation would help white Southerners avoid facing up to their identity as the land of their racist and slave-holding forebears. The name of the Robert E. Lee Council should remain as a constant reminder of the responsibility of not forgetting.

Atif Z. Qadir earned the rank of Eagle Scout 3 years ago.