Black law students at Washington and Lee University, under a new group called “The Committee,” have asked Washington and Lee University to take a series of steps to address “the racist and dishonorable conduct of Robert E. Lee.” Lee served as president of the university after the Civil War, and has historically been revered at the institution. The Committee is calling on the university to observe the Martin Luther King Day as a formal day off, to stop allowing “neo-confederates to march on campus with Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson day,” and to formally apologize “for the university’s participation in chattel slavery” and “Robert E. Lee’s participation in slavery.”
A statement from the university noted that it does hold events to mark Martin Luther King Day every year, and that a decision to call off classes would have to be made by the faculty. The statement does not go into a detailed response on the other demands, but says that the university welcomes discussion on these issues and that “in terms of the other issues that the students have raised, we will give them all careful consideration.”
In 2012, during an earlier debate about the Lee legacy at the university, the institution’s president, Kenneth P. Ruscio, wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed in which he argued for a balanced view of the general. “Lee was a dignified, humble man. His sense of duty and honor would cause him to cringe if he ever became the subject of idolatry or the embodiment of myth,” Ruscio wrote. “Blindly, superficially and reflexively rushing to his defense is no less an affront to history than blindly, superficially and reflexively attacking him. What he needs, what he deserves, and what his record can withstand is the honest appraisal of those who have not made up their minds, who can appreciate the man with all his complexities and contradictions. History is indeed not kind enough to present us with simple morality tales.”
—Inside Higher Ed
RESPONSE FROM CIVIL WAR MEMORY’S KEVIN LEVIN:
I first heard about this story on one of the Southern Heritage Facebook pages, but now a group of black law students at Washington & Lee University, who are demanding that their university distance itself from its Confederate past is gaining some traction [and here]. This push comes on the heels of the steps taken by the city of Lexington to limit the display of the Confederate flag on public property.
The group of students, who call themselves “The Committee” have published a list of demands that includes a formal recognition of MLK Day and an apology from the university for its participation in slavery. They are on shakier ground, in my opinion, with the following two demands.
2. We demand that the University stop allowing neo-confederates to march on campus with confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day and to stop allowing these groups to hold programs in Lee Chapel.
3. We demand that the University immediately remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.
I certainly sympathize with this group of students, but their list of demands goes too far for a college campus. First, college students and administrators should want their campuses to be bastions for the free exchange of ideas in classrooms and other venues. You will and should be offended while attending college. Students should consider all perspectives regardless of whether they find it offensive, hurtful, dangerous, etc. It’s a little disappointing to read such a demand from a group of law students.
As for the Confederate flag I do not believe that the university should fly it from buildings and other campus locations in a way that can be interpreted as an endorsement. Of course, it doesn’t. The Lee Chapel is a difficult structure to navigate on this score. After all, it is the burial site of Robert E. Lee. There are Confederate flags in the chapel, but there are also flags throughout the museum exhibit below, where they are properly interpreted. Are these students seriously suggesting that all of these flags be removed? Finally, the programs in the chapel on Lee-Jackson Day have feature some of the most respected historians we have, including Gary Gallagher, Robert Krick, and William C. Davis. Why should they not be allowed to speak? And if they feature the most rabid racists then deal with it. Again,
My suggestion is that if students feel this strongly about Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag then they probably should stay out of the chapel. The school’s historical connection to Robert E. Lee is well documented and could not have been a surprise to its applicants. Again, the school does have a responsibility to ensure that all students feel safe and respected, but this list of demands largely falls short of its mark.
In regards to this whole matter, I’d like to say something about the “proper interpretation” of the flags that have been the subject of this manufactured controversey. I visit Lee Chapel several times a year. I often take friends or family with me and have been doing so, as an adult, for over 30 years.
In all my times visiting the Shrine of the South and stopping at the Recumbent Lee and listening to the docent explain the history of the Chapel, along with the Valentine statue and the flags, never once did a docent fail to explain the context and historical significance of the flags. Never once was there any glorification of the Confederacy or the flags or, for that matter Lee. Never once did a docent exhibit any speech or attitude other that than of factual representation of the history of that place. Respect for the Chapel was always evident, but that is proper given the caretaker status of those in charge of such a historically significant location and building.
Those suggesting that the flags need to be in the museum so that they can be “properly interpreted” have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about and, most likely, have never even visited Lee Chapel. The flags were already being interpreted and were displayed in a historical context. If you want to present the argument that the flags were added “later” and don’t belong, – so was the Recumbent Lee, as well as General Lee himself – first in an area now occupied by the museum, later in the family crypt. Those making the argument for the relocation of the flags for the purpose of “proper interpretation” are simply displaying their ignorance and serving up a distraction (intentionally or not) from what this whole issue is really about – illogical emotion, modern politics and political correctness.
As I stated previously, the protests over Confederate imagery will not stop with the flag removal. Those who have expressed sympathies with the removal of these items properly set and interpreted in context have backed themselves into a corner. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to extract themselves when the next set of demands are made – and there have already been hints that those demands are eventually coming.