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BART director under fire for racism brands Confederate general ‘genius’

BART director John McPartland | Courtesy BART

After apologizing for using racist language during a board meeting, a BART director has now branded a slave-owning Confederate general as a "military genius."

Director John McPartland, an NAACP member, described racial equity work presented to BART staff as “cotton-picking inspirational” at a board meeting on Jan. 12. He pled ignorance in an apology made to The Standard Tuesday. 

“I’m saddened that my ignorance and education should have such a high cost,” said McPartland, who is white. “I’m disappointed in myself for not being aware. It was unacceptable, and we’ll have to see what happens.”

By Wednesday, a history of him making controversial comments had come to light.

'Robert E. Lee was a military genius'

BART arrives at Powell Street Station in San Francisco. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

McPartland told a Black lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union that she was “very articulate” in 2019 and called Robert E. Lee an “exemplary general” in 2020 during a discussion on Black Lives Matter. The 78-year-old said he apologized to the woman soon after, and she accepted his apology.

However, he stood by his characterization of Lee when a discussion on Black Lives Matter and policing turned toward removing monuments of Americans with racist legacies. Lee, a slave owner, led the Confederate States Army to defeat during the American Civil War over slavery.  

“Robert E. Lee was a military genius,” McPartland told The Standard over the phone Wednesday. He said that men with racist legacies are “part of our history. We should also put up a plaque that says, 'This is a slave owner and racist.' They should be recognized for both.”

Modern historians have challenged the notion that Lee was a “genius.” He lost Gettysburg with a strategic blunder that got 6,000 of his soldiers killed by sending them into to an open field. He made this order against the wishes of his subordinates. He also made plenty of other key strategic errors. The revisionist history regarding Lee is documented in detail in this Washington Post story.

'There’s a history here'

Activists are now calling for McPartland to be removed from roles and go further with his apologies.

Rev. Julius X. Van Hook of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County is demanding McPartland be disqualified from participating in a discussion on the violation, and be removed from one or more BART committees. Van Hook is also calling for a written apology and public apology for the “racist comments” at the next BART Board of Directors meeting on Jan. 26.

“At the end of the day, this is a multibillion dollar transportation agency representing thousands of people,” Van Hook told The Standard. “The impact of his words affect every rider. There’s a history here.”

McPartland added that he is writing a formal apology for the “cotton-picking” statement and plans to make a public apology in addition to personally apologizing to Black staff who made the presentation. He said he would “accept anything that ends up coming his way.” 

BART General Manager Bob Powers sent out an email to staff after McPartland apologized Tuesday.

"The language was insensitive and unacceptable to the staff delivering the presentation as well as embarrassing to the district," the email read. "BART is committed to ensuring a workplace free of discrimination and providing a more inclusive and equitable workplace."

Spokesperson Alicia Trost said it was on the BART Board of Directors to decide on disciplinary measures.

“I hope I didn't end up digging a bigger hole,” McPartland said after defending Lee.