According to the members of “The Committee” both the chapel’s Confederate flags and its use by “neo-confederates” have contributed to “both the past and current racial bigotry and discrimination found on our campus.” I don’t for a minute deny that these students perceive the chapel as contributing to the school’s racial climate, but that shouldn’t prevent us from taking a quick look at how the chapel has been utilized. What follows is not meant in any way as an exhaustive list of the range of speakers and subjects that have been discussed in the Lee Chapel, but as a small sample.
We could start with Donna Brazile’s recent keynote address on Martin Luther King’s birthday. In 2009 Dick Gregory delivered a very moving address on the same occasion. That same year Clarence Thomas spoke inside the Lee Chapel. How have their appearances contributed to the meaning and evolving legacy of the Lee Chapel?
A couple of years ago Gary Gallagher was invited to deliver the “Remembering Robert E. Lee Lecture”. He focused on Lee’s time at then Washington College and warned his audience at the beginning that they might hear some things that they find offensive. This past February historian Allen Guelzo reflected on the legacy of the Gettysburg Address.
All of this took place under Confederate flags and in full sight of Edward Valentine’s recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee.
This post as well as previous posts should not be read as an attempt to dismiss student concerns about their campus’s racial climate. My concern is with the way in which these students frame the problem. It seems to me that their focus on “neo-confederates” and Confederate flags minimizes the significance of a building that belongs to the entire community. Robert E. Lee could never have anticipated the range of people and subjects that have found a home in the chapel. No doubt, Lee himself would be appalled by the presence of specific individuals.
Instead of calling for the removal of objects from the chapel and barring certain groups from using it, these students ought to take the high road and add to the meaning and legacy of this site. Organize events for the chapel that address issues that are deemed to be important. Leave your own mark that students who follow can build on in a constructive way.