Congress

Democrats aim to force Pentagon to strip Confederate leaders from Army base names

This photo shows an entrance sign to Fort Bragg, N.C., Tuesday, April 24, 2007. The nine U.S. soldiers killed when a truck bomb exploded next to their patrol base in Iraq were all paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, the division said Tuesday. Twenty of their colleagues were wounded in the attack.
This photo shows an entrance sign to Fort Bragg, N.C., Tuesday, April 24, 2007. The nine U.S. soldiers killed when a truck bomb exploded next to their patrol base in Iraq were all paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, the division said Tuesday. Twenty of their colleagues were wounded in the attack. ASSOCIATED PRESS

A New York Democrat is drafting legislation to require the Pentagon rename any military installations named for Confederate generals, part of an urgent effort by African-American lawmakers to force public institutions to stop celebrating historical figures who defended slavery.

“Naming military property after armed insurrectionists with American blood on their hands is an affront to members of the Armed Forces, many of whom are people of color, who take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution,” writes Rep. Yvette Clarke, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, in the bill text. “There are an ample number of meritorious members of the Armed Forces, who loyally served the United States, for whom military property could and should be named.”

Clarke’s bill has 10 co-sponsors, all House Democrats from New York and New Jersey. Hers is not the only effort.

Sen. Cory Booker, a black Democrat from New Jersey, said he intends to introduce a bill to have statues of Confederate leaders removed from the U.S. Capitol.

The black caucus filed an amicus brief last month asking the Supreme Court to hear a case filed by a Mississippi man against the state’s flag, which has the Confederate stars and bars on it.

“There is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or in places of honor across the country,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The fate of these measures in a GOP-run Congress seems certain. Even as Republicans have criticized Trump’s comments about violence at a white supremacist rally around a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, many have kept mum on their opinions about taking down Confederate memorials and monuments.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has taken the position that decisions on Confederate memorials should be made by officials in the states, not the federal government.

“These are decisions for those states to make,” said Doug Andres, a Ryan spokesman.

Three of the world’s largest military bases — Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, and Fort Benning in Georgia — are named for Confederate generals.

In all, 10 major U.S. Army bases honor Confederate heroes, including some that are named after the Georgia chief of the Ku Klux Klan, the head of the Confederate Army, and the commander who led the attack that started the Civil War.

It is up to individual military services to name their bases, and the Army has insisted that each of theirs is "is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history."

“These historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies," U.S. Army public affairs chief Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost said in 2015, after a mass shooting by a white supremacist in Charleston renewed the conversation about Confederate memorials.

While the public debate has focused on renaming public squares, roads and schools, there has been very little movement to pressure the U.S. military to change the names of the bases. And it's unlikely to come from the Army itself, which is wary of getting caught up in any politically charged debate.

Clarke's bill may give the military an unprecedented opening to discuss the possibility of changing names of bases that honor Confederate leaders.

"This is exactly what the military wants," said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who served as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is now at the Center for a New American Security.

"So long as Congress pushes it, they aren’t seen as the lead on one side of a contentious debate," he said. "I think military leaders would love to see someone else make this happen."

Leaders of black veterans organizations and advocacy groups told McClatchy earlier this week that challenging the military on the issue is not a priority. Many seemed to see it as a lost cause that lacks momentum.

[READ MORE: Ten major Army bases honor Confederate generals, and there are no plans to change that]

New York lawmakers were involved in a similar push earlier this month to rename Stonewall Jackson Drive and General Lee Avenue in Brooklyn. The roads run through Fort Hamilton, an active military base.

The Army declined their request, reiterating that the streets were named after Lee and Jackson “in the spirit of reconciliation."

“After over a century, any effort to rename memorializations on Fort Hamilton would be controversial and divisive,” acting Assistant Secretary of the Army Diane Randon said.

Ada Fisher, an African-American Republican from Salisbury, N.C., agrees. She blanched at the thought of Fort Bragg being renamed.

“That’s just absolute foolishness,” said Fisher, who was a delegate at the 2016 GOP convention. “You’d get a lot of opposition in North Carolina. While people rush in and have knee-jerk reaction to stuff, they need to think about what they’re doing, and I don’t think people are thinking about what they’re doing.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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