It is with some pride that we point to Rep. Anthony Brown of Prince George’s County, the former lieutenant governor, as a leader in the movement to remove the names of Confederate soldiers and officers from U.S. military installations. As Mr. Brown, a retired U.S. Army colonel, has observed, they are a daily reminder of the systemic oppression of the past and, given the renewed interest in racial equality of late, we should not be lionizing those who fought to keep African Americans as slaves. Many of these bases were named in the 20th century to appease racist white Southern leaders who objected to integration in the military. Indeed, all 10 of these facilities are located in the South, from Virginia to Texas.
But who isn’t good with bringing the military fully into the oft-stated goal of racial equality? That would be President Donald Trump, who on Wednesday tweeted that his administration will “not even consider” renaming bases that he described as “magnificent,” “fabled,” and part of the “Great American Heritage.” But while Fort Bragg (named after Braxton Bragg, an often-defeated Confederate general considered by many historians to be among the worst military leader to serve on either side during the Civil War) and Fort Hood (named after Confederate General John Bell Hood who is famous for his over-aggressive tactics and personal ambition) have a storied place in U.S. military history, it is not for their namesakes but because of the accomplishments of the men and women who have served in those installations.
The unseemly adulation of Confederate generals is not just distasteful, it’s likely harmful to the morale of the current rank-and-file military, About 43% of U.S. active duty personnel are from minority groups, up from 36% in 2004. Think they are comforted by having the name of a Confederate general pasted on their front door? Or are they more likely to share the views of Skip Auld, the 67-year-old who serves as CEO of Anne Arundel County’s library system who recently petitioned the courts to change his name? No longer did Mr. Auld wish to be Hampton Marshall Auld, a tribute to Confederate General Wade Hampton III, one of the South’s largest slaveholders. We’re going to guess they see the librarian’s point of view.
A lot of decorated military leaders certainly do. They include David Petraeus, the four-star Army general who once trained at Fort Bragg and recently observed in The Atlantic that the "irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention.” This is especially problematic at a time when the United States is convulsed with protests over the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. When even such a revered and deeply Southern institution as NASCAR decides to ban Confederate flags from its races as it announced Wednesday, you know attitudes are seriously changing.
So now we have the unfortunate circumstance of a military willing to rename (as recently as Monday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said he was “open” to it) and well-regarded veterans like General Petraeus believing it is wrong to honor treason only to have this reasonable course of action cut off at the knees by a commander-in-chief who famously avoided military service during a war by falsely claiming to have bone spurs. One imagines President Trump could not pick Braxton Bragg out of a photo lineup. What he can do, however, is recognize that the white Southern vote is crucial to his reelection chances, particularly in potential swing states like North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And so Mr. Trump sticks up for Fort Gordon, named after John Brown Gordon, who is widely believed to have served as head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia after the Civil War.
This is yet another instance of this president not only failing to recognize systemic racism that continues to plague this nation’s most important institutions including the military, but seeking to inflame a culture war. It is not denying history to take the name of a Confederate general off the welcome sign of a U.S. Army base. Nor does it dishonor veterans. It achieves exactly the opposite effect: This is about correcting the mistakes of the past, standing up for the core American values of fairness and equality, and demonstrating that the nation is finally willing to move beyond institutional racism. Such a choice brings honor to anyone involved including retired and active duty U.S. servicemen and women of all races.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.