Julianne Moore campaign: Should schools bear Confederate names?

Julianne Moore and Bruce Cohen created a Change.org petition to garner support for changing the name of their high school. This petition comes amid a national debate over Confederate icons. 

Benoit Tessier/Reuters/File
Actress Julianne Moore poses on the red carpet in May 2015. Moore is heading a petition drive to remove a Confederate general's name from her Virginia high school.

Julianne Moore wants to change her former high school's name, and she wants your help.

The Falls Church, Va., school, which Ms. Moore attended from 1975 to 1977, is named for James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart, who served as a general in the Confederate Army.

“No one should have to apologize for the name of the public high school you attended and the history of racism it represents,” wrote Moore along with Hollywood producer and fellow J.E.B. Stuart High School alum Bruce Cohen, in the introduction to a Change.org petition to rename the school after Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice.

According to The Washington Post, the school is now attended by a diverse group of students: 49 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black, 14 percent Asian, and 24 percent white. Sixty percent of the student body qualifies for free or discounted school lunches.

As of this writing the petition has garnered more than 30,000 supporters.

This petition comes amid a national debate over the role of Confederate flags and other icons in the public sphere, that reached a new intensity after white supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine people at a Bible study session in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in June. Mr. Roof's social media profiles showed him posing with the Confederate battle flag and other emblems associated with white nationalism.

Following the shooting, lawmakers from several states pushed for the removal of Confederate symbols, including flags and statues of Confederate leaders. Major retailers, including Walmart, Amazon, and Sears stopped selling Confederate flags and related products.

While these events have prompted closer scrutiny of schools named after Confederate leaders, Moore and Cohen’s attempt to erase Stuart’s name is not without precedent. In 2013, a successful change.org petition with 162,150 supporters convinced the Jacksonville, Fla., school board to rename the Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, which was named after the Confederate general and first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A study conducted by the data-driven news outlet Vocativ found at least 188 public and charter K-12 schools in the United States that are "named either explicitly for prominent Confederates or for places named after prominent Confederates.” Klan leader Forrest is still commemorated by the seven schools in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Overall, however, the tradition of naming schools after prominent people appears to be waning. In 2007, the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, found that the practice is becoming "increasingly rare." The report found, for instance, five schools in Florida named after George Washington, and 11 named after manatees.

"The names that school boards give to schools both reflect and shape civic values," the report's authors wrote. "They reflect values because naming a school after someone or something provides at least an implicit endorsement of the values that the name represents. And school names can shape values by providing educators with a teaching opportunity: teachers at a Lincoln Elementary, for example, can reference the school name to spark discussions of the evils of slavery and the benefits of preserving our union."

But some are not ready to give up what they consider to be a part of their heritage, and many Southerners do not view the Confederate symbols in a negative light, but rather as a remembrance of family members who fought in the Civil War. Last year, Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Va. started a petition to reinstate their mascot, the “Rebel Man,” a Confederate soldier. In a nearby county, Lee-Davis High School still maintains its teams’ name: the Confederates.

Following the Charleston shooting, New York Times columnist David Brooks argued for the removal of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee's name from "most schools, roads, and other institutions," but that Confederate memorials should be preserved.

“If we want to reduce racism," Mr. Brooks wrote, "we have to elevate the symbols that signify the struggle against racism and devalue the symbols that signify its acceptance,”

Writing in the Atlantic, correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that blacks are not the only group victimized by the continued display of Confederate emblems.

"The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans," he wrote. "The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans."

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