To Fly or Not Fly the Confederate Flag: It’s All About Context

There seems to be some confusion about my response to yesterday’s story surrounding a list of demands made by students at W&L concerning their school’s relationship with Confederate heritage. Let me assure you that my response is perfectly consistent with positions taken in the past. 

Here are a couple of comments from the post.

Kevin……..Don’t try a two face turn now. This is exactly what you have wanted and backed. First it was take the Confederate flag of government property, now it is colleges and public property. They will not stop until they have destroyed the right of Southerners to honor and celebrate their heritage. Where does it stop ? It stops t at the beginning of my property !!! I will fly whatever flag I care to fly and if it offends them or you, all I can say is……….Tough.

I’m with Pat and the law students on this, and I’m surprised at your dismissive attitude, Kevin. Kevin, a view that you have expressed many times on your blog is, to paraphrase, that “the community should decide how to commemorate their history”. These law students are part of the W&L community, and they are trying to change minds through argument and protest. If I worked or studied at W&L I’d be out there supporting them. I think what they are doing is wholly admirable, and I hope they are successful in getting W&L to distance itself from neoconfederate nostalgia and worship of the Marble Man. I think the idea of an “apology” for past institutional sins is a bit off point, but the implicit demand that the college be open about its past as a pillar of upholding white supremacy in Virginia is something I applaud.

First, it’s not every day that I upset both sides of such a divisive issue.

I’ve always maintained that when it comes to the display of the Confederate flag and other things Confederate history/heritage that context matters. Confederate flags ought to be displayed in a few select places, including museums, cemeteries, and specific structures that have a clear historical connection. One such place is the Lee Chapel on the campus at W&L. I was disappointed to read in many of the comments an assumption that the faculty and administration take a cavalier attitude when it comes to this aspect of their school’s legacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know for a fact that faculty use the site to interpret any number of issues related to the school’s history, the history of the Confederacy and the South and the broader nation’s story. In short, W&L is not a bastion of Lost Cause nostalgia.

That said, even though I disagree with the specifics articulated in the petition, I do believe that school administrators ought to take these students seriously. They are part of the community. No doubt, the concerns listed reflect broader concerns about race on campus and they ought to be addressed. The school may even need to adjust the way it utilizes this particular space. And this brings us to a comment by Richard Williams, who has contorted himself into believing that I am somehow “surprised” by this development.

Though Kevin and I rarely agree on anything, I think his take on this latest PC controversy is correct. However, I’m not quite sure why Kevin (and others) seem to be a bit surprised or think this effort goes too far. After all, this is simply the natural progression of political correctness and Confederate history bashing – which often takes place on Kevin’s blog.

As usual, Williams trots out the victim card when more substantive arguments are unavailable. I am not surprised by anything; in fact, like I said above I welcome the discussion between students and administrators. I am confident that the school can make a case for maintaining the chapel the way it is without offending certain segments of the community. It’s an important structure with a rich history that has been and will continue to be properly interpreted.

If Williams wants to know why Confederate heritage is in retreat in much of his beloved “Old Virginia” all he has to do is take a close look at his own argument and that of others who style themselves defenders of Confederate/Southern heritage. Pointing the finger at commenters on my blog or the “PC” police only masks the fact that their arguments are intellectually and morally bankrupt. Whine and complain all you want, but the reason the symbols and stories that you care most about are slowly disappearing is that you have not made a compelling case to maintain them in public spaces. Blame yourselves.

The difference is that W&L has and will continue to make a reasonable case to maintain the Lee Chapel for the benefit of its community and visitors from around the country and beyond.

37 thoughts on “To Fly or Not Fly the Confederate Flag: It’s All About Context

  1. Michael Rodgers

    Yesterday you took the petition seriously as if it was turned in to you, the teacher, for a grade, and you gave it the grade it deserved, an F. Today you are generously characterizing the “demands” as concerns which reflect broader concerns etc. Both yesterday and today you have been consistent with what you have moderately and correctly always maintained about context.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I think it’s a huge mistake to talk about this petition in terms of a grade. I took issue with specific points made in the petition without dismissing the overall concerns of these students. That hardly constitutes an “F”.

      Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I did, but I still maintain that the university has a responsibility to engage in a conversation about the concerns expressed. Again, I was very specific about what I found problematic about the petition. Go back and reread it if necessary. Thanks for the comments.

          Reply
  2. Rob Baker

    Whine and complain all you want, but the reason the symbols and stories that you care most about are slowly disappearing is that you have not made a compelling case to maintain them in public spaces. Blame yourselves.

    Very well said. Context is extremely important, from the W&L Chapel to the I-95 Flag.

    Reply
  3. Chris Coleman

    I tend to come down on Kevin’s side in this latest controversy.

    If the memory of General Robert E. Lee was so offensive to the sensibilities of the students and faculty, why in heaven’s name would they patronize an institution called “Washington & LEE” which has a building called the LEE CHAPEL?

    While I am not a lost cause devotee, trying to expunge the mention and/or image of anything relating to the Confederate Army and its leaders in the South reeks of attempting to rewrite history, in the Orwellian sense. If we make Lee a “non-person” and whitewash the school’s obvious Southern heritage, how does that benefit people today?

    One should certainly condemn slavery, racism and Secessionism. But I would suggest that those people all in a dander about the historic heritage of Washington & Lee should instead devote their energy to fighting those three tyrannies in the present day; for all three are still very much with us, both in the US and in the world at large!

    Reply
    1. Pat Young

      Chris wrote: “If the memory of General Robert E. Lee was so offensive to the sensibilities of the students and faculty, why in heaven’s name would they patronize an institution called “Washington & LEE” which has a building called the LEE CHAPEL?”

      Once again comes the suggestion that if these students of color find “the memory of General Robert E. Lee…so offensive” they should not “patronize” [attend] the law school.

      Sorry, but at my law school if students of color come to me to talk about something that they feel hinders the development of a diverse student body, I do not ask them why they came to a place that already had that perceived problem.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        But at some point, depending on the nature of the issue at hand, perhaps you should. Why is it all or nothing with these issues?

        Reply
        1. Pat Young

          How do you know that it is “all or nothing.” The students sent their list of grievances, the university president responded. It looks like a dialogue is getting underway. That is hardly “all or nothing.”

          Since the student initiators are at the law school, which has a liberal dean, I would not assume that the feelings there are entirely antagonistic to The Committee.

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            It looks like a dialogue is getting underway.

            I never suggested that I was against a dialog. My post pointed out what I believe are problems with two of their demands.

            Reply
          2. Rob Baker

            I believe it became “all or nothing” when “The Committee” gave an ultimatum that their demands be met or they would engage in “civil disobedience.”

            Reply
  4. Pat Young

    The university president issued a response to The Committee which included some interesting information:

    “Last week, some members of the Board of Trustees and I received a letter from 12 Law School students expressing concerns about the climate for students of color at Washington and Lee.

    In recent days, reports about the students’ demands have appeared in several media outlets, and additional media attention will likely be forthcoming.

    I first want to assure the community that we take these students’ concerns seriously. The issues they have raised are important, and we intend to address them.

    Upon receipt of their letter, I immediately responded to the students and asked that, as a first step, a meeting take place with them and members of the University Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate (UCICC). That committee, chaired by Marc Conner, associate provost, consists of students (both law and undergraduate) and members of the faculty, staff and administration. We created UCICC in 2008 as “an institutional platform to address issues of inclusiveness and diversity, in response to concerns within the campus community.” Throughout this year, UCICC and the Office of Student Affairs have been holding focus groups with students to discuss some of the very issues that the law students are raising.

    I also asked Provost Daniel Wubah to schedule a meeting with the law students.”

    I realize that within The Civil War Community, the black students in The Committee are getting an “F”, but my background is in the organizing and representation of communities of color, and I would give them a much higher grade.

    First, they got the attention of the university community, the university president and administration, and local and national media. Not an easy thing for 12 black law students to do anywhere at any time.

    Second, while some in the Civil War Community rate The Committee’s letter as “ridiculous”, the university’s president decidedly did not. The president writes “we take these students’ concerns seriously. The issues they have raised are important, and we intend to address them.” In other words, the letter is the opposite of “ridiculous.” It is “important.”

    I am glad to see that while the Civil War Community has been quick to dismiss and disparage the letter of The Committee, the university community takes this seriously.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I fully expected that the petition would be taken seriously and I do hope that it leads to a productive discussion. That said, I stand by the content of my post.

      Reply
    2. Michael Rodgers

      Pat,
      The W&L president kindly and respectfully explained that the proper method was to present facts, opinions, and requests to the already-established committees. “The Committee” can get the law school calendar looked at by one committee, the undergraduate calendar looked at by another, and general issues of diversity and inclusion looked into by yet another committee, which had already been hard at work on some of the very changes that “The Committee” suddenly demanded by a deadline under threat of disobedience.
      I fail to see how the attention “The Committee” is causing to be heaped on the W&L administration helps the situation, and in fact the analogy that leaps to mind is your posts here “Are the Virginia Flaggers a Threat to Confederate Heritage?”

      Reply
  5. Pat Young

    This article includes an interview with two of the student signatories of The Committee letter:

    “Anjelica Hendricks and Dominik Taylor, two of the seven law students who formed the protest committee, said they bought into W&L’s message at first. Both grew up in Virginia and understand the culture but also know that history needs to be presented in its context.

    “As a native of Virginia, I understand that every prestigious school in Virginia is named after a slave owner. I went to James Madison University,” Hendricks said. “JMU was very comfortable. The name of the institution didn’t matter. It was all about the atmosphere.”

    She found W&L and Lexington welcoming when she visited, but the experience soured immediately upon moving in.

    “During orientation we had to go inside Lee Chapel and sign an honor contract to uphold our honor according to the honor of Robert E. Lee,” she said. Signing that contract in the shadow of a slave owner, and beneath plaques honoring Confederate soldiers and battle flags bowing to a movement to keep black people enslaved is hurtful, she said.

    “I’m a native of Richmond. I know what it’s like to remember the past; however, I didn’t feel the racism and disrespect as I did in being asked to uphold an honor that aligns with the views of Lee,” she said.”

    Here is a link to the full article:

    http://www.newsadvance.com/news/state/w-l-students-demand-removal-of-confederate-flags-decry-view/article_548339ff-3199-543a-88a0-33d6836ae36f.html

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I read it as well this morning. In fact, I was going to write up a separate post. First, “The Committee” references the honor contract in their petition, but make no specific reference to where the ceremony takes place. The chapel is used for a number of school related gatherings throughout the year. Should all events be moved elsewhere?

      Now, I do believe that if enough students point to this particular event as problematic than the administration should consider moving it. I believe UVA students all sign some sort of honor pledge on the campus that Jefferson designed and oversaw from Monticello. Perhaps this honor pledge should be discontinued as well.

      Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I don’t know, but given your last comment all I need is one case for it to be relevant.

          Reply
          1. Pat Young

            Not true. The letter was signed by a group of students variously described as 7 or 12. Reporters working on a story typically interview one or two people when there is a larger class identified. That is pretty standard journalistic practice.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              You are free to assume what you want. I read one student complaint about where the honor pledge takes place.

              Reply
    2. Rob Baker

      I fail to see how the student can argue context is key, and then have issues with the honor contract. She is not being asked to sign the contract of Robert E. Lee’s honor, but the honor contract that he himself established as president of Washington College, not as a slave owner. It appears she doesn’t understand the difference.

      Reply
      1. msb

        According to abstract above, all students are asked to swear to “to uphold our honor according to the honor of Robert E. Lee”. Here “according to the honor of Robert E. Lee” would seem to stand for “as Lee upheld his honor”. I would not like to swear to that, and I’m not black.

        Reply
        1. Rob Baker

          “According to abstract above,….”

          Yes, ‘according to the abstract’. Which is why I said that the student does not understand the context of the honor code she signed. The roots of the honor system can be traced to the 1840s, but the system as it is known today began under Robert E. Lee’s presidency. It was established as a system of integrity among the college students. It is not, “Lee’s honor code,” in that it is his honor, but it is “Lee’s honor code,” in that he established it. There is a difference…one obviously missed.

          Reply
          1. Bob Huddleston

            I would question asking me to swear to an honor code promoted by a man who had committed treason.

            Reply
  6. Julian

    I read that (and similar) articles and thought that it sounded like it was the honour pledge even more than the flags that were causing the issues – so why is there not a simple alternative like allowing people to make a conscience vote on whether or not to make the pledge

    Also are we talking of a small number of vocal dissenters amongst a far larger community of scholars and students – all of whom have an equal right to express an opinion – but so far have not – what about the issue of a very small group forcing their POV on others – it will be interesting to see what other voices come out. The Committee may well be performing the first steps in some spectacular public careers – I read them as very savvy

    As an art historian I hope to see the chapel one day – it belongs to a genre of emotionally and visually spectacular Victorian tombs such as Alfred Gilbert’s Tomb of the Duke of Clarence, Bertram Mackennal’s Curzon Memorial and Springthorpe Memorial and St Gauden’s Clover Adams Memorial – this is a heritage that has resonance beyond the Civil War and to alter it for modern socio political reasons is itself an act of historical fabrication – as others have said – of the nature of the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas, the destruction of Timbuktu or Stalinist airbrushing of photographs, the imploding of the Berlin Schloss – and responsible historical practice should not condone such fictions.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment. You said:

      As an art historian I hope to see the chapel one day – it belongs to a genre of emotionally and visually spectacular Victorian tombs such as Alfred Gilbert’s Tomb of the Duke of Clarence, Bertram Mackennal’s Curzon Memorial and Springthorpe Memorial and St Gauden’s Clover Adams Memorial – this is a heritage that has resonance beyond the Civil War and to alter it for modern socio political reasons is itself an act of historical fabrication – as others have said – of the nature of the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas, the destruction of Timbuktu or Stalinist airbrushing of photographs, the imploding of the Berlin Schloss – and responsible historical practice should not condone such fictions.

      What exactly is a “fiction” about the Lee Chapel?

      Reply
      1. Pat Young

        Julian wrote that The Committee’s changes could be “an act of historical fabrication – as others have said – of the nature of the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas, ”

        I think we cann all draw the line at dynamite.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          She raises an important question and perhaps a comparison that some of us would rather ignore.

          Reply
    2. Rob Baker

      I read that (and similar) articles and thought that it sounded like it was the honour pledge even more than the flags that were causing the issues – so why is there not a simple alternative like allowing people to make a conscience vote on whether or not to make the pledge

      The is a bad idea. The honor system is also the college runs numerous behavioral contracts and guidelines on campus such as plagiarizing, lying, cheating, disorderly conduct. It is presided over by a student body honor council. They take this things serious as it administers conduct. I went to a small liberal arts college with an honor code, it is an incredible thing.

      Reply
  7. Brendan Bossard

    It seems to me that the petitioners are missing a great opportunity to practice what they are learning. Since all American law is based on the U.S. Constitution, why not have a mock U.S. Supreme Court hearing about the matter before 9 experts in Constitutional Law? The verdict of the 9 “justices” could then dictate which, if any, of the petitioners’ demands should be accomodated. This could be done on an annual basis, each side being represented by a new class, treating previous annual hearings as if they had not been heard in order to avoid the problem of precedent. There could be problems with the perception of making a mockery of the Chapel setting itself, but I think that with a little thought this can be circumvented.

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      That’s a great idea. Instructive for the audience, too, if it’s done the way the Supremes do actual hearings, complete with time limits — IIRC, 30 minutes for each side, including Q&A from the bench — and lights on the podium.

      Reply
  8. Brad

    If the students object to Lee, why did they bother to even apply. If they weren’t aware of the history, frankly I wouldn’t want them representing me as lawyers. The hallmark of a good attorney is to know the facts. Perhaps they should transfer.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Brad,

      Although I don’t agree with all the specifics of the committee’s petition I do think it is safe to say that their concerns go beyond the history of W&L and the Lee Chapel.

      Reply

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