ONE HUNDRED and thirty-four years later, the American Civil War still has its markers all over the landscape, but in most places they're little noticed anymore. It's different in Richmond. The old city is full of Confederate memorabilia, museums, galleries and statuary. But Richmond is now a city with an African American majority, and given its history of segregation and racial division, it should hardly have come as a surprise that in time, voices would be raised about honoring men who fought to preserve a society whose chief distinguishing feature was slavery.
There is now a furor over whether the Confederacy's most revered figure, Robert E. Lee, should be portrayed (along with others) on a flood wall in a new park. Sa'ad El-Amin, a member of the city council, started things off, not too nicely, when he likened Lee to Hitler or Stalin. He helped get the general's picture removed from the project. Now the Lee forces are demanding that it be reinstated.
For a long time, Robert E. Lee was a figure above reproach and mostly beyond debate in a country that to a large degree achieved reconciliation between North and South at the expense of its African American citizens. He was of course a military genius, and honorable and decent in his personal relationships. He disliked the institution of slavery but was a slaveholder and planter. He did not openly question the cause in which he found himself caught up, or attack the fundamental injustice it harbored and defended. His racial views were not advanced. It's good that people are arguing over him.
But the current spat in Richmond isn't contributing much. The Confederate-flag and Rebel T-shirt crowd is joining in, along with the more genteel admirers of Lee. Mr. El-Amin now says it's okay if Lee is portrayed -- but in defeat, at Appomattox. A pro-Lee spokesman counters: "That did not happen in Richmond."
Here's something that did happen in Richmond; it's described in a recent Lee biography by Emory M. Thomas: Not long after Appomattox, Lee was at Sunday worship in the conquered Confederate capital -- at St. Paul's Church, where "a list of communicants read like a `Who's Who' of the Confederacy." As the invitation was issued to communion, a black man strode directly to the altar. When the other parishioners hung back, shocked at this breach of the racial code, Lee walked forward alone and knelt beside the man at the communion rail -- to be followed soon by the rest of the congregation. Why not have an artist portray that moment on the flood wall in Richmond?