Black congressional leaders, historians and commentators blasted White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s assessment of the causes of the Civil War and comments about former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the latest divisive statement on race from the highest levels of the Trump administration.
Kelly made his remarks on Laura Ingraham’s television show on Fox News on Monday night — and White House officials defended his comments Tuesday.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said. “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.”
That triggered widespread outrage among black leaders.
Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, criticized Kelly, a retired four-star general, for a “lack of knowledge” about the causes of the Civil War.
“John Kelly needs a history lesson. The Civil War was not a disagreement between ‘men and women of good faith on both sides.’ It was a struggle for the soul of this country,” Richmond said in a statement. “Thankfully, the right side won the war and slavery is no longer the law of the land.”
The war was fought from 1861 to 1865 after Southern slave-owning states seceded from mostly non-slave Northern states. Slavery was officially outlawed in the nation on Dec. 6, 1865 — months after the war ended and nearly two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — when the 13th Amendment was ratified.
“We need to stop relitigating and referencing the Civil War as if there was some moral conundrum. There was no compromise to make — only a choice between continuing slavery and ending it,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate. “We need to move forward together, instead of letting the divisions of the past continue to force us apart.”
Hilary Shelton, head of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, called Kelly’s take on the Civil War “dangerously simplistic.” He said that the NAACP would love to sit down with White House officials and provide a history lesson.
“It’s extremely troubling and clearly demonstrates a level of ignorance that’s dangerous,” Shelton said. “When I heard it this morning, I turned to my wife and said ‘Is there no one inside the White House that can provide counsel to important leaders like our chief of staff on issues that are so much a part of our history?’ It’s dangerous, it’s very dangerous.”
Shelton said the NAACP would “be delighted to sit down to them to explain what that history was.”
Just a few weeks ago, Kelly accused Rep. Frederica Wilson, a South Florida Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, of making a speech about dead FBI agents at a building dedication. Video of the incident contradicted Kelly’s take.
The incident came after Wilson provided an unflattering account of President Donald Trump’s phone call to a widow of one of the soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger.
Wilson, on Twitter, questioned “What would be the right ‘compromise’ between slavery and freedom for human beings?’”
Trump created a firestorm in August when he said that there were “good people on both sides” after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a Lee statue. A counter-protester was killed during the event.
Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe called Kelly’s view “historically ignorant, morally blind” on Twitter.
In a tweet, W. Kamau Bell, a comic and CNN host, joked about a hypothetical conversation between Lee and President Abraham Lincoln.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Kelly’s comments, claiming that many historians agree that “a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War. There are a lot of historians that think that.”
“There are certainly, I think, some historical documentation that many people — and there’s pretty strong consensus from people from the left, the right, the North, and the South — that believe that if some of the individuals engaged had been willing to come to some compromises on different things, then it may not have occurred,” Sanders said during her daily White House briefing.
William Barber, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, called Kelly’s view “a lie.”
“Compromise is what allowed slavery to exist in the first place. Revisionist history is dangerous. Suggesting it was not slavery, not injustice, but a lack of compromise that caused the Civil War is a disturbing lie,” Barber said.