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Presidential campaign talking point: Fort Bragg's name change

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Earlier this month, the country's largest Army base by population got a new name - Fort Liberty. No longer is it named after Confederate General Braxton Bragg. Now that change has become a presidential campaign talking point. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The two candidates speaking at the North Carolina GOP's annual state convention didn't mince words. First, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

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RON DESANTIS: And I also look forward to, as president, restoring the name of Fort Bragg to our great military base in Fayetteville, N.C.

PRICE: And the next day, former Vice President Mike Pence.

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MIKE PENCE: We will end the political correctness in the hallways of the Pentagon, and North Carolina will once again be home to Fort Bragg.

PRICE: But the Pentagon didn't force the name change to Liberty. Congress did in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd with bipartisan support. After then-President Donald Trump vetoed the bill containing the law, Congress voted to override him.

JAMES ROBINETTE: There are a number of legal authorities at play.

PRICE: James Robinette, a retired Army JAG officer, was staff attorney for the special federal commission appointed to shepherd the renaming. Nine bases named for Confederate leaders are being renamed, all of them this year. And that law flatly says the military can't refer to the Confederacy when it names anything.

ROBINETTE: If a future president were to say, executive order - Fort Liberty is renamed Fort Bragg - and we have no idea what the future Congress would look like, but it could be a future Congress might choose to say, I don't think so.

PRICE: The candidates' campaigns didn't respond to interview requests, so it's unclear how or whether they would follow through. The renaming process has been lengthy and elaborate, and by the time the next president could act, the new base names would likely have been in use for years and millions of dollars spent on everything from signage to website retooling. Re-renaming any of them would cause whiplash in the local communities. Mitch Colvin is mayor of the city of Fayetteville, adjacent to Fort Liberty. Colvin, who's Black, says it's time to move on.

MITCH COLVIN: We certainly applaud the government for turning the page on the Civil War, Confederate, dark part of our history. And I hope that these candidates can focus on more important things.

PRICE: Retired two-star Gen. Rodney Anderson was a senior commander on the base. He says the candidates are engaging in political theater.

RODNEY ANDERSON: This is much like woke. Yeah, beat the drum, and yell a lot about a term that most people don't know anything about, and see if it can get people riled up. And then when you get them riled up, then maybe they'll get their friends riled up, and maybe they'll vote for you.

PRICE: He worked with the local community on picking a new name and says Liberty is the right one. It has ties to key units on the base, and it's what the troops there fight for. Anderson, who also is Black, said the candidates were using the name change as a dog whistle and should have to explain why they want to return to Bragg.

ANDERSON: Is it because you want to honor the Confederacy? Is that why you want to do it? So why would you want to change the name back?

PRICE: It's unlikely the reason is reverence for Braxton Bragg. Again, naming commission attorney James Robinette.

ROBINETTE: Yeah. He couldn't get along with anybody in the Confederacy, and he was a bad general.

PRICE: One of the Confederacy's worst, in fact, according to many historians. Indeed, it's not clear the idea was to honor him in the first place. The base was one of many built quickly for World War I. The military decided those in the South would be named for Confederate leaders. NPR found a memo from the time that suggests Bragg's name may have been chosen for a pretty simple reason. It was short and would make paperwork easier. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price
Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.