I’ll Take My Stand

By Paul Lagarde

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.



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30 replies »

    • Excellent ! This just proves that this “committee” is not interested in historical truth or accuracy, rather board the racism bandwagon. My family is from Lexington, this is MY history and heritage they are trying to eradicate. Regardless of any attempt to give their complaints creedence, they’re demands are unconditional. If they don’t like it, they can simply leave.

  1. Very well done sir, you covered all that needed addressing . I would have added if “The Committee” cannot accept the ideals of W&L then they have selected the wrong school,but then they probably know that by now.

  2. Excellent! Thanks for standing up for Lee and denouncing the very tactics of the committee that fly in the face of what Lee stood for and what the school stands for now!

  3. Agreed! There actions seem so uneducated to say the least. A small group trying for the limelight in my opinion. Some things in life are hijacked by groups that misrepresent what the true meaning of the Confederate battle flag stands for. I would also say Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee are some of the greatest Americans that ever lived. If only we could strive to be like them. This world would be a wonderful place.

  4. It saddens my heart that groups such as the “committee” want to have an agenda which is a type of racism in reverse. Why can’t they understand this type of action tends to continue building walls between the races rather than meld us together as Americans.

  5. Finally someone gets it. Now toss the troublemakers out. They have done nothing but bring shame on Washington & Lee. They knew who the school was named for before they enrolled. Their ignorance of history, tradition and civility reflects very poorly on Washington & Lee.

  6. The “Committee” needs to do some more studying on Gen. Lee and they would realize the agony of his decision to leave his service in the Army of the United States. The deprivations his family suffered under the Union Flag and his treatment by Secretary Seward in totally destroying his family home. Finally the example of humility he displayed in Richmond by kneeling with a Black Man in prayer after the war was over can never be overlooked. He was a great man.

  7. Excellent article. I do have to wonder why this small handful of students who no doubt love their own heritage want to disparage mine and deny it to me. Where is tolerance and diversity? It is also sad that the typical party line about history is taken as gospel without study. Have these students studied quotes made by Abraham Lincoln? He hardly fought a war to end slavery. Read his own words. Lee was far more anti-slavery than Lincoln ever was. The US flag also flew over slavery shall we remove it as well?
    I “demand” that the “Committee” respect tolerance and diversity by ceasing to attack my hertiage. The street indeed runs both ways. You want respect – try showing respect. There are plenty of school swithout Lee’s name on them. Surely if you are so offended you do not want a diploma bearing his name do you?

  8. Fantastic letter….but surely the flags in the Lee chapel are up to the family…….and although I am in the Uk being part of the original family, I would totally vote against them being removed….

  9. To the contrary, the “committee” is salivating for their style of Orwellian authoritarian rule.

  10. I would remind the students and faculty that slavery was a United States institution that did not end until 8 months after Lincoln’s death. Even then it was very difficult to garner enough votes without the southern States. Gen. Granbt owned slaves inherited from his father in law Col. Dent. However this issue is pushed by ignorant people who are not interested in fact but Marxist revolution. So much for diversity. Bob Lovell

  11. Well said. Thank you for your logical and factual reply to The Committee’s demands. They don’t want meaningful discussion.
    And thank you for your reminder of the character of Gen. Lee and the honorable principles by which he lived his entire life.
    Question – are the members of The Committee students who are attending W&L under the program that offers free tuition?

  12. An opinion expressing an educated, knowledgeable and honest interpretation of the facts, unlike the view expressed by the “who are they” committee.

    When you bed with dogs expect fleas………….If you cave to the DEMANDS of “The Committee”…………..

  13. Hear Hear! A very intelligently written response. I hope that it receives the attention it deserves from leadership.

  14. “It takes men of worth to recognize worth in men.” (Thomas Carlyle, from his “Latter-Day Pamphlets.”)
    Well written reply to those of the “Committee,” who have evidently first gotten their education and seek a diploma with General Lees name on it before becoming outraged. They remind me of the man who would buy a house at the end of an airport runway, and then sue the airport for all of the airplanes flying over his head.

  15. God bless you Bob !!! My people were all from Lexington and other areas of the Shenendoah Valley. The greatest honor I have had was not only placing a lemon at Stonewall’s grave , but paying my respects to Gen Lee and his family. If it were not for the history and heritage of Lexington, who would visit ? There’s always Williamsburg……… for now !!!

  16. Outstanding response. It is comforting to know members (or at least supporters) of the W&L community are in agreement with the response to these irrational and immature law students. It seems to me they are only interested in making a name for themselves to hopefully attain gainful employment after law school. If they were truly interested in social justice they would demand that the name of the school be changed, have the VIneyard Vines ties removed from the gift shop as they bear a likeness of Lee in uniform and have the uniform chisled off the Recumbant Lee statue.

  17. I think this letter is right on. Let the committe find another school.Their are plenty to choose from..

  18. This will effect tourism in Lexington, that is why most history buffs visit. I for one will not return nor will my like minded friends. What’s next ???? If there is a boycott, I will be among them ! RETURN THE HERITAGE AND THE HONOR !

  19. Words and cheering the prospectus are encouraging and well served but this institution will need severe and harsh pressure from a financial threat in order to reverse the Presidents decision. Withholding donations and convincing supporters far and wide will aide in this venture.

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