Black leaders offer Kelly a Civil War history lesson

Brian Murphy
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Washington — 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 1861-65 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.

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.

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.”

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.