Progressives driving to rid public spaces of statues honoring Confederate leaders have taken pains to distinguish between the rebels and the slaveholding Founding Fathers.
On Thursday, one liberal commentator veered off script and lent credibility to President Donald Trump’s warning that the anti-Confederate movement will not stop with southern Civil War generals like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
“I don’t care if it’s a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue, or a Robert E. Lee statue,” commentator Angela Rye said on CNN. “They all need to come down.”
Daily Beast columnist John Avalon moved quickly to challenge Rye — not so much because she was wrong but because it might help Trump.
“We’ve got to be real careful about what we’re doing here,” he said on the same program. “Because we’re polarizing the conversation exactly in the direction that Donald Trump wants, Angela.”
Avalon added that Rye was buying into “exactly the slippery-slope argument that Donald Trump is presenting that Founding Fathers are the moral equal of Confederate generals.”
But Rye, former executive director and general counsel of the Congressional Black Caucus, doubled down.
“We have to get to the heart of the problem here, and the heart of the problem is the way in which many of us were taught American history. American history is not all glorious,” she said. “And even though I love John to death, I couldn’t disagree more about George Washington. George Washington was a slave owner. And we need to call slave owners out for what they are, whether we think they were protecting American freedom or not. He wasn’t protecting my freedom. I wasn’t someone who — my ancestors weren’t deemed human to him.”
Rye said she was calling out white supremacy for what it is.
“This country was founded on a very violent past that resulted in the raping and the killing of my ancestors,” she said. “I’m not going to allow us to say that it’s okay for a Robert E. Lee [statue to be removed] but not a George Washington. We need to call it what it is.”
Avalon had argued that Trump and his lawyer, John Dowd, have tried to “elevate the South and put it on an equal patriotic footing” by drawing a false equivalency between the commander of the Confederate army and the nation’s first president.
“But it falls apart on the fundamental level that George Washington devoted his life to trying to unite our nation, and Confederate generals made a fateful decision to try to tear apart our nation, and six million people [sic] died,” he said.
But Rye made clear that she does not see a moral difference.
“We definitely need to learn about it so we don’t repeat it,” she said. “Because we’re very close to repeating it right now. But I’m not giving any deference to George Washington or Robert E. Lee.”
Black author and journalist Farai Chideya said she considers Washington a “complicated man who was a hero.” She drew a distinction to Lee, whom many historians also consider a complex figure, who held contradictory views on slavery.