No Excuses for a Racist Murderer: W.E.B. DuBois on the Legacy of Robert E. Lee

Historian and civil rights organizer, W.E.B. DuBois, wrote this short essay in 1928.

W.E.B. DuBois

William E. B. DuBois testifying on the UNCIO (United Nations Conference on International Organization) charter during hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo by Marie Hansen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Each year on the 19th of Jan­u­ary, there is renewed effort to can­on­ize Robert E. Lee, the great­est con­fed­er­ate gen­er­al. His per­son­al come­li­ness, his aris­to­crat­ic birth and his mil­i­tary prowess all call for the ver­dict of great­ness and genius. But one thing – one ter­ri­ble fact – mil­i­tates against this, and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to per­pet­u­ate slav­ery. Cop­per­heads like The New York Times may mag­is­te­ri­al­ly declare, Of course, he nev­er fought for slav­ery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Non­sense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slav­ery. If nation­al­ism had been a stronger defense of the slave sys­tem than par­tic­u­lar­ism, the South would have been as nation­al­is­tic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery.

No. Peo­ple do not go to war for abstract the­o­ries of gov­ern­ment. They fight for prop­er­ty and priv­i­lege, and that was what Vir­ginia fought for in the Civ­il War. And Lee fol­lowed Vir­ginia. He fol­lowed Vir­ginia not because he par­tic­u­lar­ly loved slav­ery (although he cer­tain­ly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his fam­i­ly and his clan. Lee hes­i­tat­ed and hung his head in shame, because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Chris­t­ian decen­cy and did not dare refuse. He sur­ren­dered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

Today we can best per­pet­u­ate his mem­o­ry and his nobler traits not by fal­si­fy­ing his moral deba­cle, but by explain­ing it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, oth­er Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for jus­tice to the Negro because of the over­whelm­ing pub­lic opin­ion of their social envi­ron­ment. Their fathers in the past have con­doned lynch­ing and mob vio­lence, just as today they acqui­esce in the dis­fran­chise­ment of edu­cat­ed and wor­thy black cit­i­zens, pro­vide wretched­ly inad­e­quate pub­lic schools for Negro chil­dren and endorse a pub­lic treat­ment of sick­ness, pover­ty and crime which dis­graces civilization.

It is the pun­ish­ment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jef­fer­son Davis­es will always be tall, hand­some and well-born. That their courage will be phys­i­cal and not moral. That their lead­er­ship will be weak com­pli­ance with pub­lic opin­ion and nev­er cost­ly and unswerv­ing revolt for jus­tice and right. It is ridicu­lous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most for­mi­da­ble agency this nation ever raised to make 4 mil­lion human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slav­ery meant when he helped maim and mur­der thou­sands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a trai­tor and a rebel – not indeed to his coun­try, but to human­i­ty and humanity’s God.

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