Video of Louisiana activist calling for school board member to resign goes viral

The scandal erupted amid a move to rename a high school.

June 22, 2020, 10:52 PM

One school board's move to rename a Louisiana high school named after Robert E. Lee has resulted in calls for a board member to step down.

After a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board defended keeping the school's name and appeared to be shopping online during a board meeting on the name change, fellow board members and local activists are demanding her resignation.

"I had intended to get up here and talk about how racist Robert E. Lee was, but I'm going to talk about you, Connie, sitting over there shopping while we're talking about Robert E. Lee," said activist Gary Chambers Jr., addressing Connie Bernard at a hearing last Thursday. "You sit your arrogant self in here and sit on there shopping while the pain and the hurt of the people of this community is on display, because you don't give a damn. And you should resign."

Activist Gary Chambers addresses the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on June 18, 2020.

A video of part of Chambers' speech has gone viral, with celebrities including Ava DuVernay and LeBron James sharing it on Twitter. On Monday, Chambers appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

One board member said he has received thousands of emails in recent days calling for Bernard to resign.

"Over 2,000 emails have been submitted in the last 72 hours from people all over the world!" Dadrius Lanus said on Facebook Monday. "This is how we make change happen! Keep flooding our emails until Connie Bernard steps down from our School Board! This is not a game and the PEOPLE mean business!"

Lanus called to rename Lee Magnet High School earlier this month in a letter to the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. He noted that 81% of the school system's 42,334 students identify as Black or African American.

"There are few figures in American history that are more divisive, hypocritical and demoralizing than Robert E. Lee, a native of the state of Virginia, not Louisiana," the June 9 letter said. "At such a monumental and unprecedented time in our nation's history, it would behoove our members to be on the right side of history, and reignite racial harmony in our great community."

Monuments to Lee and other Confederate figures across the country have been taken down in the wake of George Floyd's killing while in police custody, as cities and towns grapple with displays of racism and oppression.

The school changed its name from Robert E. Lee High School in 2016. According to the local TV station WVLA/WGMB, Bernard voted at the time to keep the name honoring the Confederate general. In a June 10 interview with the station, she voiced support for keeping the name the same today.

"We thought it was best to keep the name in honor of that long legacy of alumni," Bernard told the station, adding, "I would hope that they would learn a little bit more about General Lee."

On Thursday, the board ended up unanimously voting to hear recommendations for a new name of the high school.

After Chambers alleged that Bernard was shopping online during the hearing, he shared a photo on Instagram that appears to show her looking at a shopping site.

Bernard told The Advocate on Friday that she wasn't shopping, and that the site was a pop-up ad. "I was actually taking notes, paying attention, reading online comments," she told the publication.

In response, over the weekend, Chambers shared video footage on Instagram that appears to show Bernard scrolling an online shopping site for several seconds.

ABC News reached out to Bernard but has yet to hear back.

Bernard submitted a statement to ABC affiliate station WBRZ in Baton Rouge on Friday regarding her comments on Lee.

"My comments last week about the naming of Lee High School were insensitive, have caused pain for others and have led people to believe I am an enemy of people of color, and I am deeply sorry," she said. "I condemn racial injustice in any form. I promise to be part of the solution and to listen to the concerns of all members of our community. I stand with you, in love and respect."

School board member Michael Gaudet told WBRZ in a statement Monday that Bernard's actions showed "disinterest and apathy," and that he plans to submit a proposal requiring board members to take a race education course.

Another board member, Tramelle Howard, called for Bernard's resignation following Thursday's hearing.

"The actions taken by my colleague are inexcusable," Howard, vice president of the school board, wrote in an Instagram post on Saturday. "The half apology does not represent a sincere understanding of the years of hurt and pain presented on Thursday by the members of this community! Every action requires a consequence!"

At a press briefing Monday afternoon, two board members joined Howard and Lanus in asking for her immediate resignation.

"The actions taken by Miss Bernard over the last few days are in no way a representation of this school board, the EBR school system and the collective Baton Rouge community," Howard said. "Thursday evening was over 400 years of pain and hurt on display, and our colleague decided to ignore the cry of our community and totally misrepresent us as a school board."

Howard noted that the board does not have the power to remove a sitting board member.

Following the news conference, Bernard sent a statement to WBRZ saying she had no intention of resigning.

"I regret that I have become a distraction to the important work we have to do to educate our children. After prayerful consideration and consultation with my family and friends, I will continue to serve all students as elected by my district three times," the statement read.