It would take the wisdom of Solomon to determine the very worst Trump cabinet official, but Ryan Zinke really is making a hell of a case for himself:
Ryan Zinke, the embattled secretary of the Interior Department, suggested in a confused comparison that Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who fought to preserve slavery, was as much an American hero as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. during a speech on Saturday, drawing renewed scrutiny of Zinke’s record on racial issues.
The secretary was speaking at a ceremony designating Camp Nelson, a Union recruitment and training depot in Kentucky for black soldiers during the Civil War, as a national monument. He compared the placement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to that of Arlington National Cemetery, the military burial ground located on Lee’s former plantation, and that of the Lincoln Memorial.
“I like to think that Lincoln doesn’t have his back to General Lee. He’s in front of him. There’s a difference. Similar to Martin Luther King doesn’t have his back to Lincoln. He’s in front of Lincoln as we march together to form a more perfect union,” Zinke said at the start of a 25-minute speech. “That’s a great story, and so is Camp Nelson.”
Civil rights groups condemned the remark ― which American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic political action committee, first uncovered and which HuffPost confirmed with video posted to Facebook by a local newspaper ― as offensive and ahistorical.
“To compare Martin Luther King to Robert E. Lee is not only a dangerous comparison, it is completely historically inaccurate,” Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said in an email. “Dr. King saved lives ― Robert E. Lee destroyed them.”
The NAACP praised the designation of Camp Nelson and said it was “unfortunate” that Zinke “decided to connect General Robert E. Lee to this story.”
“To attempt to link Lee’s achievements for the Confederacy which embraced White Supremacy to that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not a slight oversight but a huge historical misappropriation that the descendants of enslaved Africans cannot accept or tolerate,” Malik Russell, an NAACP spokesman, said in an email. “Dr. King’s work united our nation and bent the moral arc toward justice, while General Lee acquiesced to the ignoble norms of his time.”
As the article goes on to explain, Zinke has put his racism into practice when he’s not too busy grifting and self-dealing.
Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”
The trauma of rupturing families lasted lifetimes for the enslaved—it was, as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates described it, “a kind of murder.” After the war, thousands of the emancipated searched desperately for kin lost to the market for human flesh, fruitlessly for most. In Reconstruction, the historian Eric Foner quotes a Freedmen’s Bureau agent who notes of the emancipated, “in their eyes, the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.”
Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.
When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”
Every state that seceded mentioned slavery as the cause in their declarations of secession. Lee’s beloved Virginia was no different, accusing the federal government of “perverting” its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” Lee’s decision to fight for the South can only be described as a choice to fight for the continued existence of human bondage in America—even though for the Union, it was not at first a war for emancipation.
During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”
Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”
Torture and treason in defense of slavery are not in fact redeemed by courtly manners, and Ryan Zinke is an almost perfect illustration of the party of Trump.