Washington And Lee University Pulls Confederate Flag, A Century Late
It's been around a long time, in one form or another — about 153 years, actually — and in some places, it's not going anywhere. We're talking about the Confederate flag, emblem of the Civil War's southern states, and for many, an icon synonymous with the defense of slavery. It's been an enduring and controversial sight on institutional flagpoles, and is even embedded to this day in some state flags. Mississippi's flag is the most overt example, and it's also a favored icon of the Ku Klux Klan — wherever you find racism, the flag is often not far behind. Most recently, Washington and Lee University agreed to remove Confederate flags from its historic Lee Chapel Wednesday, joining a group of institutions that have chosen to abandon the "Stars and Bars" after criticism of its racist legacy.
Sure, the location of this latest scandal doesn't come as much of a shock — Washington and Lee, named after George Washington and Confederate general Robert E. Lee, with Lee Chapel sitting above the latter's actual burial ground, was probably a decent place to guess you'd find a Confederate flag. Still, sometimes you might look up and be surprised to see that bright red banner of secession staring back at you — at a state university's tailgate, for instance. Here are four colleges that made considered decisions about the presence of the Confederate flag on their campuses; some figured it could stay, others that it had to go.
1. Washington and Lee University, Virginia (2014)
The agreement by Washington and Lee to strip Lee Chapel of its Confederate flags bears particular mention, because the scope of the school's historical relationship to race transcends a piece of cloth. Also among the demands of the students who protested to the school's administrators: An apology by the university over its use of slavery in the mid-1800s.
In his letter explaining the decision, Washington and Lee President Kenneth Ruscio called his school's use of slavery a "regrettable chapter," and assured the public that they'd "continue to study its historic involvement with slavery." As for the school's association with Robert E. Lee, however, Ruscio was less conciliatory:
I personally take pride in [Lee's] significant accomplishments here and will not apologize for the crucial role he played in shaping this institution. Affection for and criticism of historical figures living in complicated times are not mutually exclusive positions ... Lee was an imperfect individual living in imperfect times. Lee deserves, and his record can withstand, an honest appraisal by those who understand the complexities of history. His considerable contributions to this institution are part of that record.
So, to recap: Confederate flags bad, slavery bad, Robert E. Lee... semi-goodish? Kinda bad?
2. The Citadel, South Carolina (2014)
This vaunted military college has sent their own message about the Confederate flag, and that message, in short, is "a-ok!". The Confederate flag flies outside the Citadel's chapel, ostensibly a monument to the gallantry and sacrifice of South Carolina's Confederate troops.
That can be said with some certainty, actually, because its presence is licensed by South Carolina law. In June, the state's solicitor general Robert E. Cook deemed the Citadel flag as protected by the Heritage Act of 2000, which as Reuters reports protects "monuments and memorials honoring the gallantry and sacrifice in this state's various wars."
3. University of South Carolina Beaufort (2011)
The administration of this South Carolina college asked 19-year-old Byron Thomas to pull down the Confederate flag he had hanging in his window, after complaints from visiting parents and other students. While Thomas, who is black, complied with the college's request, he also defended the flag on explicitly racial grounds. As the New York Daily News reported at the time, Thomas insisted that a class research project had convinced him the flag was not a racist emblem.
When I look at this flag, I don't see racism. I see respect, Southern pride.
The school ultimately told Thomas he was entirely free to return the flag to it's spot in his window frame — that they'd only asked him to remove it out of consideration for other people's views on it — but by 2012, according to Thomas' YouTube account, a new rule requiring windows be kept clear forced it back down again.
4. Louisiana State University (2006)
What was going on at LSU in 2006? Well, among the various academic pursuits on offer, the college also had a dynamo football team that year, as they basically do most years — the LSU Tigers, bringing out throngs of students to watch some high-powered football every weekend.
Some of those students, however, were keen to mix their football fandom with their Confederate pride, resulting in the widespread presence of some troubling flags. Some of them looked like thia.
This is bad enough before considering their beloved football team was loaded with skilled, star black players, led by eventual number one NFL Draft pick JaMarcus Russell. Players who were not — and still aren't — properly compensated for the immense value they generate for their colleges.
As reported by the AP, the flags sparked game-day protests by groups of black students, and ultimately spurred the college to request — though not force — that students keep them at home. But despite their reluctance to order the student body around, President Sean O'Keefe made his own feelings known.
We have an intolerance of the display of this symbol, a fundamental rejection by the university, of the use of university colors to even vaguely imply that we would tolerate or endorse this display. We will not impede the constitutional right of free speech by banning this flag, but we ask that it not be flown on the LSU campus.
O'Keefe also took action to halt the flow of the flags, implying in letters to local retailers that if they continued to produce them, they'd be deprived of official LSU merchandise in the future.
Images: Byron Thomas/YouTube