Confederate names make comeback, triggering lawsuits

A Virginia school district was sued this week after it restored Confederate military names for two buildings, foreshadowing a broader battle that is heating up ahead of the election.

The Virginia NAACP sued the school board in Shenandoah County after it voted to change Mountain View High School to Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary back to Ashby Lee Elementary.

The NAACP argues in its federal lawsuit that students’ constitutional rights were violated by the district’s act of reverting back to Confederate names. It invoked the First Amendment and 14th Amendment in its lawsuit, saying it “prohibits racial discrimination in state-supported institutions.”

”By celebrating the memory of these traitors every time a child walked through the school doors, by embracing the cold wind of intolerance and division and insensitivity, the Shenandoah County School Board has resurrected the ghosts of the Jim Crow era,” NAACP Virginia State Conference President Cozy Bailey said.

The group asked the U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg to remove the Confederate names and mascots from the schools.

“This is directly linked to efforts to keep Black children out of school, to subjugate Black communities and keep them away from the benefits of education,” said Tyler Whittenberg, deputy director of the Opportunity to Learn program for the Advancement Project. “I have no doubt that this was the intent of the board members when making this decision.”

According to a tracker from Education Week, about 340 schools in 21 states around the U.S. have names based on Confederate figures.

“I think they are creating an inhospitable environment for students of color to really learn and thrive socially,” James Jones, assistant professor and director of the Center for Politics and Race in America at Rutgers University, said of the change in Virginia. “I do believe that this is a trend; I do believe that changing these things back to honor the Confederate is a trend that we are likely to see across the country.”

After George Floyd was killed by police in 2020 in Minneapolis, a wave of at least 61 schools removed Confederate names from their buildings, Education Week found.

But the momentum has slowed, and those who see honoring Confederate names as part of their heritage and history have worked to get those names back.

“Confederate statues were taken down, the names of Confederate soldiers were removed from buildings and it really was a good moment for many of us in the movement,” Whittenberg said. “Right after that, we saw a lot of the backlash and really just blatant attacks on all of the gains for education equity.”

Experts contend that the attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts have led to an environment ripe for these changes at schools.

The movement first started in Republican-states such as Texas and Florida, which completely eliminated DEI initiatives at state universities, leading to the loss of hundreds of jobs. This move has spread to states not fully under Republican control, such as North Carolina.

“Good for the UNC-Chapel Hill board for recognizing common sense and pushing back against the woke mob. Now is the time to prioritize campus safety, not virtue signaling,” said Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) after the vote to remove DEI from North Carolina public universities was announced.

More than a dozen states have also passed laws restricting teaching about race, and multiple states have banned Advanced Placement African American studies classes from their curriculum.

“I think we’re sort of seeing with these broader DEI attacks, they have started locally, and we have seen them spread across the country,” Jones said.

Activists hope to see success in the NAACP lawsuit, but they also say it is just one way they are fighting back.

“School board elections are going to continue to be extremely important. The conservative right has made it a point to really pour a lot of energy to the school board races, and these races may not typically do a lot of turnout, but when you allow this small group of people to then take these things, or implement really harmful decisions that impact negatively the lives of black and Latin X students” more people need to take action, Whittenberg said.

“I would just encourage people to get active to support local organizations that are fighting for education, equity,” he added.

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