By Paul Lagarde
Several weeks ago, a few law students, identifying themselves only as “The Committee,” sent a letter to President Ruscio and the Board of Trustees demanding that actions be taken to improve the climate on campus for students of color. The Committee issued the following demands:
1. That the University fully recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the undergraduate campus.
2. 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. That the University immediately remove all Confederate flags from its property, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.
4. That the University issue an official apology for the University’s participation in chattel slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee’s participation in slavery.
Threatening civil disobedience if these demands were not met by September 1, The Committee turned to the national media almost immediately after contacting Ruscio and the Board, perhaps not allowing ample time for any kind of thorough response on the school’s part.
Before addressing the content and method of the Committee’s demands, let me state up front that I support the right of these law students to bring up this topic for discussion. Our University community should encourage discourse and debate, not quash it. As President Ruscio said in his email to the student body on April 16th, “the students have raised important questions that relate to ongoing discussions at the University.”W&L can only grow from such discussions.
With that being said, it does not appear that The Committee’s purpose is to foster meaningful discussion, at least on the community level. Rather, in turning so quickly to the national media, which can reliably be expected to get the facts as wrong as it takes to get a sensational headline, The Committee instead revealed its intention to accomplish its goals through external pressure, rather than seeking to foster mutual understanding by means of an honest discussion. Instead of seeking a civil conversation on sensitive issues that involve race, The Committee decided to take an adversarial tone, and, according to multiple news outlets, even threatened to publicly disobey University authority, all before the school even had a chance to respond. These actions, particularly the threat of disobedience, contradict the defining principles of Washington and Lee and the idea of an institution dedicated to fostering a community of trust, civility, and honor.
Because of these circumstances, the discussion has grown more complicated than it should have. Nevertheless, I will seek to address The Committee’s concerns, beginning with the issue of classes on Martin Luther King Day. As President Ruscio stated in a follow-up email on April 21st, “the question of canceling undergraduate classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is about how to honor Dr. King’s legacy, not whether to honor it.” Indeed, it would be hard for anyone to argue that the University does not thoroughly observe and celebrate MLK Day. Traditionally, the school has honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory with a concert by the outstanding University Singers, a birthday party for local children, a day of service, faculty panels, a guest speaker, and a commemorative dinner. Indeed, it even seems that the January MLK events overshadow Robert E. Lee’s own concurrent birthday celebration, so it is puzzling why the law students on The Committee would insist on canceling undergraduate classes on top of all this. Furthermore, as alum Nathan Jensen noted in an op-ed in the Roanoke Times, undergraduates also attend classes on Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, and President’s Day—all federal holidays. Therefore, it is ridiculous to suggest that by not canceling classes on MLK Day, the University is promoting some kind of prejudiced attitude as the result of underlying racism. We simply have class on King’s Birthday because that is our standard practice. As an educational institution, might we not more effectively carry out our mission anyway by continuing to celebrate King through the current proactive measures rather than simply providing students with a longer weekend and the extra day of drinking that a canceled day of classes would undoubtedly encourage? This writer thinks so.
The Committee also demanded that the University remove all Confederate flags from its property, including the flags in Lee Chapel. The vague wording of this demand is troubling to say the least. Does this group want the school to march through Graham-Lees, police-style, and strip all rebel flags from students’ walls? Such an invasion would not only violate the Constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech, but it would also undermine the traditions of student autonomy and self-governance that have been hallmarks of this University since, well, the days of Robert E. Lee’s presidency. Even if The Committee is not salivating at the prospect of Orwellian totalitarianism on this campus, their call for the removal of Confederate flags from Lee Chapel remains worrisome by itself. It would be ludicrous to assume that the University’s display of Confederate flags in Lee Chapel indicates institutional support for slavery or racism.
This sensitivity by many to the Confederate flag is certainly not new, but the assumption that the flag itself as well as all who would fly it are racist is simply not accurate. Though Lee was certainly a man of many facets, to completely deny his role in the Confederacy by removing the flags from a building named after him would seem a bit odd. In his second message to the student body, President Ruscio wrote that W&L is an educational institution, “not a museum and not a historical curiosity.” However, this statement perhaps creates an unnecessary juxtaposition between a university and a museum, and in doing so, it does not really paint the full picture of Washington and Lee. Though W&L is primarily an educational institution, Lee Chapel, however, does, in fact, include a museum on the lower level and is designated as a National Historical Landmark. There are no classes in Lee Chapel, and it has a distinct, reverential aura about it, due to the fact that it serves most importantly as the final resting place for the Lee family. As W&L continues to have this discussion, to lump Lee Chapel in with the other buildings on campus like Leyburn Library oversimplifies things and does the chapel and the family buried there a disservice. The building bears enormous historical significance, and removing the flags from Lee Chapel due to a few protestors would signal an intentional attempt to deny history. There are other, better ways to demonstrate good will than to deny the past, even if the past is not pretty.
If the University were to cave to The Committee’s final demand and issue a denunciation of Robert E. Lee for his “participation in slavery”, by the same logic it must also issue a denunciation of George Washington as well, for Washington owned slaves. Many believe that Lee was ahead of his time on the issue of slavery and his sense of duty, honor, and his Christian faith (the reasons for which he is still admired by many today) informed his belief that slavery was evil. If we accept The Committee’s logic on this matter, we might as well start referring to our school as “And University.”
This point aside, the legacy of Lee at W&L has never really been about his role in the Civil War. Rather, we primarily celebrate his years afterward, in which he came to Washington College to help save a hurting school and heal a broken nation. He not only improved and expanded the school, probably saving it from extinction, but he also promoted the culture of honor and civility that exists today. We honor Lee because he was a great man who loved this place, and we recognize that his ideals played a key role in shaping it. He was a gentleman in every sense, and that is why our school should be proud to bear his name today.
Here at Washington and Lee, we hold ourselves to a high standard. The members of The Committee feel that W&L is not a welcoming community, and we should take their concerns seriously. But we should not give in to bully tactics. Instead, we should renew our commitment to honor and gentlemanly behavior by learning from Lee’s example, and by doing so, we can ensure that our university will be a place for all here to truly call home. The great irony in all of this is that Robert E. Lee singlehandedly did more than any other individual to promote a culture of civility and decency at this school. Now more than ever, we should cling to these ideals and honor the man who lived them out, not denounce him.