After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee accepted a position as president of then Washington College. By all accounts, he served the school well and had a nice end-of-life. After his death, Washington College was renamed Washington & Lee.
Now, many black people attend the university that bears Marse Robert's surname, so I guess we won. But a group of black law students at Washington & Lee are getting really sick of the university's consistent, stars-and-bars waving support of Lee's legacy and the whitewashing (no pun intended) of what that legacy represents.
They've got a list of some very specific "demands" for the Washington & Lee administration...
On the one hand, I'm kind of surprised that black students at Washington & Lee are just now threatening "civil disobedience" over the school's longstanding remembrance of the Confederate cause. The thing is called Washington & Lee, not Washington & GRANT. I mean, here's a line taken right from the school's "about" page on its website:
Founded in 1749, Washington and Lee University is named for two of the most influential men in American history: George Washington, ... and Robert E. Lee, whose presidency and innovative leadership brought the University into the national limelight.
Right... the two "of the most influential" people in American history are George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Not Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Not even Washington and John C. Calhoun... you know, the guy who came up with the whole, bollocks secessionist legal reasoning. But Washington and Robert E. "I'd rather fight for my state than combat a great evil for my country" Lee. Lee's logic is akin to me fighting the Orkin Man because the "New York City" rats shouldn't be subjugated to a "national" company, but whatever.
Again, black people could have probably known what kind of university they were getting involved with when they applied to Washington & Lee, but if you want to know what's pissing the black law students off, I can begin to explain in a picture:
The differences between acknowledging history and honoring history and glorifying history are subtle. Look, I'm a Civil War buff, Confederate history is freaking fascinating. Poor farmers with no slaves fighting for a system where rich farmers could buy free labor. Valor and honor on both sides. Military strategy desperately trying to catch up to advanced technology. Confederate history is part of American history, and I think most people can respect the last, desperate charge at Gettysburg ordered by an irrational and wrong Lee.
But that doesn't mean we should glorify it. Not all history is history to be "proud" of. The Confederates fought for the wrong side, mostly for the wrong reasons, and every American alive today should be thankful that they lost.
Now, I don't know if a tomb to a dead general crosses that intangible line from historical preservation to offensive nostalgia. But when you couple those traditions with other things black law students at W&L are complaining about, you can understand their problem. Here is a list of demands from a group of black law students calling themselves "The Committee"
Here is a list of the FOUR DEMANDS:
1. We demand that the University fully recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the undergraduate campus.
2. We demand that the University stop allowing neo-confederates to march on campus with confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day.
3. We demand that the University immediately remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.
4. We demand that the University issue an official apology for the University's participation in chattel slavery, including a denunciation of General Robert E. Lee's participation in slavery.
If the school does not act by SEPTEMBER 1, 2014 we WILL engage in civil disobedience.
Lee-Jackson Day is the worst. Some Southern states moved it to coincide with MLK Day in '84. 1984, not 1884.
But really, this is a Confederate Battle Flag issue. To me, it's a symbol of racial oppression. To others, it's a symbol of Southern pride. My question to the Southern Pride people is always: what about all the black Southerns? Are they not allowed to be "prideful" of their Southern roots as well? Or are they supposed to wave around a Confederate flag in support of their "state's rights"?
I contacted Washington & Lee about the controversy. Here is the school's statement:
We have received communication from the group of law students who signed the letter and have responded by inviting invited them to engage in serious discussions about the issues that they have raised.
The question of cancelling classes on MLK Day has been discussed on several recent occasions. The law school does not hold classes that day. Any decision on changing the University's undergraduate calendar rests with the undergraduate faculty, which approves academic calendars and adjustments to the class schedule. Washington and Lee does recognize Martin Luther King Jr. each year with a university-wide MLK Legacy Week during the week of MLK Day. This annual observance features a prominent guest speaker. Recent examples are Donna Brazile, Andrew J. Young, and Julian Bond. In addition, panels, symposia and programs are available not only for the university community but also for the Lexington/Rockbridge County community. We have chosen to honor Dr. King's legacy in this way.
In terms of the other issues that the students have raised, we will give them all careful consideration
Yay. Washington & Lee has black friends, so it's all good.
Look, in terms of Washington & Lee, sure George Washington was a slaveholder too. And if W&L is using that flag in order to honor slavery, well, go nuts. But let's just remember that Washington — the Washington who fought and froze and bled for this country, the Washington who was our first federal president under our constitution — would probably roll over in his marble grave to know that a REBEL flag was displayed so prominently at a university that bears his name.
Whatever you think the Confederacy was about, it most certainly involved a violent rebellion against a duly elected president led by people who had the right to vote but could not achieve their political motives through the agreed upon process. The Founding Fathers wanted representation. The Confederates wanted to get their way, regardless of what "voters" wanted in new territories. You think Washington would wave a flag for that?
Washington & Lee has two people in its name, maybe it's time to start listening for the echoes of the other guy.