“Massive Resistance” Generation Responds to the Committee

Washington & LeeI have absolutely no problem with students and alumni at Washington & Lee University expressing disagreement with the school’s decision regarding the display of Confederate flags in Lee Chapel. After all, it’s their school. I expressed concerns about the Committee’s list of demands early on so I am certainly sympathetic to both sides. But there is something disturbing about the two alumni letters published in the most recent issue of the school’s magazine, both of who graduated during the civil rights era.

Both letters frame this dispute as if the black law students who made their concerns public don’t really belong at the school.

Only the Committee threatens students and the University should they not buckle down to embrace the Committee’s terms.

I am sorry but this group of students cannot threaten the student body because they are a part of it. It is their school. It is their right as students to voice their concerns when they perceive an injustice or other problem that deserves attention. And if “the concerns of these students should [not] be taken seriously” than whose should be taken seriously and under what conditions?

The second letter is much more problematic.

I am heartbroken, angry and appalled that a group of rabble-rousers has chosen to besmirch the traditions of our University.

Now there is a term that was commonly used to describe black Americans who campaigned for civil rights during the 1950s and 60s. The reference to “our University” in the same sentence as “rabble-rousers” suggests that this individual doesn’t consider these students to be legitimate members of the community. Suggesting that these black students are “probably even enjoying scholarship benefits” doesn’t help. One wonders what that language is code for.

What a privilege it has been for them to travel the hallowed ground and hallways of our revered University!

No more or less a “privilege” than it was for you and every other student who has set foot on campus since its founding. Its traditions and history belong to all of you.

Again, I believe there is plenty of room for disagreement over this issue, but I do hope that letters published in future issues of the magazine by more recent graduates at least acknowledge that these students are full members of the community.

26 comments add yours

  1. The line in the second letter that jumped off the page for me was the description of The Committe students as “probably even enjoying scholarship benefits.”

    What about the students makes this probable? The fact that they are black?

    • Pat, I’ve seen that response several times — it seems to be assumed that because they’re African American, they’re necessarily affirmative action students who aren’t *really* qualified to be there, and are the recipients of financial largesse to enable them to be in school. The unspoken, perhaps unconscious, message is that these people could not possibly have gotten there on their own merit.

      • When I started law school, my class was about 1/4 women which was the highest, by far, that it had been. There were very few practicing women lawyers then, particularly in litigation which was pretty much a white male WASP boys club, except for working for the federal government. When my own father, who really was as supportive of his daughters as his son in terms of getting an education, expressed the opinion that affirmative action may have helped in getting me admitted, I blew up and didn’t speak to him except when essential for days. I know he MEANT that anti-discrimination laws, etc. put pressure on educational institutions to admit women and minorities when they wouldn’t even consider them, regardless of qualifications, before but I’d heard it too often by those who meant it as a putdown. Those who use it as a putdown are saying that “unqualified” people are being admitted because of their membership in certain classification(s). My position was that with my grade point average, university class standing and honors, and LSAT scores, if I were a white guy I would have had no problem getting into a very good law school, maybe not Ivy League, but very good and I did, graduating cum laude.

        I don’t believe, at the current point of time, that there is anything unconscious about it. The people saying in opposition to the Committee are saying that minority students are basically charity cases, there on sufferance, who are not full members of the college community.

        The right to petition for the redress of grievances is a basic natural right and to even imply that someone doesn’t have the right to have a voice in the governance of a college community is a putdown.

        • Describing these students as “rabble-rousers” is also highly offensive. This is what conscientious students have always done on college campuses in response to a wide range of issues. They have every right to voice their concerns about the governance of their own community. The authors of these letters should reserve their frustration for the college administration and show these individuals the respect they deserve.

          • Rabble-rousers, trouble-makers, agitators, it’s the same framing that it has been since antebellum times. There’s a direct line from that rhetoric to Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner.

          • I am reminded of articles and interviews I saw back in the 60s that referred to MLK and other black civil rights activists as “rabble-rousers” from “up north” who had come to the south to stir up trouble where there had never been any problem with the “nigras” or “coloreds” before.

            That, combined with the scholarship snark leaves, in my mind anyway (who has observed these codes since childhood) no doubt as to where these letter righters and their like are coming from. And it’s disgusting.

            • I am reminded of articles and interviews I saw back in the 60s that referred to MLK and other black civil rights activists as “rabble-rousers” from “up north” who had come to the south to stir up trouble where there had never been any problem with the “nigras” or “coloreds” before.

              Yes.

  2. I looked at W&L stats and saw that for the undergraduate class of 2016 48% “enjoyed” scholarships. Since there are only 65 non-whites in that entire class, there are a lot of white scholarship students as well. I wonder how often alums characterize white students who criticize university policy as probable scholarship students when writing to university publications.

    Since there is a scholarship for lineal descendants of Confederates at the school, should we assume that white students might be there on the Confederate dime?

    http://www2.wlu.edu/x50200.xml

  3. is the person who wrote the second letter even a graduate of W&L? From the signature it looks as if her husband went to W&L but not her.

  4. Note that the writers belong to the classes of 1961 and 1957… That fact makes it more conceivable for them to hold racial prejudice. Subsequent generations seemingly have been increasingly more progressive when it comes to race (the insistence by the students of a Georgia high school to integrate their proms comes to mind, as does the greater number of interracial marriages among millennials, including the most ardent of “Rainbow Confederates”), with only the occasional Matthew Heimbach.

  5. The letter writers don’t understand what the administration at W&L has done. As Kevin has pointed out, very few of the demands of the Committee were granted. But the fact that students have made demands of the administration, in and of itself, is deeply disturbing to these writers.

    • It’s just more of the same hysteria magnified because of the racial dimension. I suspect that like most people these two individuals are unaware of how few of the Committee’s demands were met.

    • They don’t want to understand that what the W & L administration did was open a dialogue with students who expressed concerns. Even when W & L felt that the Committee had identified a problem that didn’t mean that it reached the solution that the Committee listed in the beginning. It’s amazing how often people identify things as sacred when all they were was what was in effect during a crucial period in the individual’s life. One of Lee’s sons, a former Confederate general in his own right, was president of the college when the original burial/Lee Chapel sites were created and yet the institution of the flag display goes to a later period.

      For institutions that started out as racially segregated whites developing a institutional ethos that includes a far broader student body is a complex and delicate task that involves a lot of listening and empathy. The whites nostalgic for times past see this as a pie that, if more are invited, the portions, especially the portions for whites, must get smaller. They can’t see that it involves baking a bigger pie with a wider range of ingredients.

      • For institutions that started out as racially segregated whites developing a institutional ethos that includes a far broader student body is a complex and delicate task that involves a lot of listening and empathy.

        Well said, Margaret. That empathy you speak of could begin on a student (alumni) level.

  6. That would be like telling Mary Louise Smith or Rosa Parks that they “freely chose” to get on the bus, so that clearly proves that they shouldn’t mind sitting in the back at all. “What a privilege it has been for them to travel.” :p

  7. I would doubt that those two letters were the only ones received by the alumni magazine about this issue. I wonder if those are representative of the whole or if the editors selected those two specific letters from one reason or another. It will be interesting to see if upcoming issues will have more alumni letters/reaction.

    • These letters are not representative of the feedback from alumni. While the feedback has been mixed, almost all responses are what one would expect from an educated person. The apparent racism in these letters is shameful and a disservice to a W&L degree. I can’t imagine why the editors chose to publish them.

  8. Both letters are incredibly offensive, in my opinion. I wonder why they were chosen to be printed and I see them as a part of what I see as a growing level of bigotry in society now. Reading the comment sections in various papers (mostly Midwestern) I see horrible statements that are directed at minorities and the poor. I see those choosing to air these sentiments in a public way, further pushing that agenda. How sad.

  9. Suppose the comments below from your original post had been written under a tagline which said “Washington & Lee, Class of 1961”? Wouldn’t people make the same assumptions about the author they are doing here, based on when the writer graduated?

    “I certainly sympathize with this group of students, but their list of demands goes too far for a college campus. First, college students and administrators should want their campuses to be bastions for the free exchange of ideas in classrooms and other venues. You will and should be offended while attending college. Students should consider all perspectives regardless of whether they find it offensive, hurtful, dangerous, etc. It’s a little disappointing to read such a demand from a group of law students.”

    The writer from the class of 1961 put it in a similar way “If toleration does not trump an individual’s dislikes and discomforts the University’s efforts to build a successful community out of what is diverse becomes very problematic.”

    You wrote, “My suggestion is that if students feel this strongly about Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag then they probably should stay out of the chapel. The school’s historical connection to Robert E. Lee is well documented and could not have been a surprise to its applicants.”

    The second writer puts it, “The students comprising this committee freely chose to enroll at W&L-probably even enjoying scholarship benefits-and knew full well the University’s history and traditions.”

    I grant that the tone of the second letter is different than the first, and that demands (using the first writer’s terms) are not “threats” per se, but both make points you made initially considering the protest. It suggests we all sometimes make assumptions about other people’s views and good will (or lack of it) based on what we know about their demographics. I’m certain people have done that in how they view the committee’s efforts and it appears in this case some people are making assumptions about the writers just because of the generation they came from, which seems to also assume their views must be forever frozen in time because of the year they graduated college.

    I suspect the committee and the two letter writers don’t have a great deal of understanding of the others viewpoints and more is the pity. You wonder, if they talked to each other what would they say, or would they even want to talk to each other? Given the statements the committee made about the unwelcoming environment in the law department did removing the flags, without sufficient dialogue between the students, alumni, and staff result in accomplishing real change?

    The issues surrounding historical symbols are complex and I fear we are talking more past each other than to each other. Once we are drawn into a situation defined only by who wins and loses we become more divided, not less.

    To use an old country expression “I don’t have a dog in this hunt”, and I think the administration came up with a good solution. But I wish before the administration had made its decisions they had brought together a range of students, alumni, and faculty to test the arguments on all side by discussion and persuasion, which is what colleges and universities do best. Perhaps this would have best served the objectives of the committee to make W&L more inclusive.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Wouldn’t people make the same assumptions about the author they are doing here, based on when the writer graduated?

      I’ve stated more than once that there is room for more than one position on this issue. What I didn’t do was insult these students or try to marginalize them. Both letters (to different degrees) do just that in my opinion.

      But I wish before the administration had made its decisions they had brought together a range of students, alumni, and faculty to test the arguments on all side by discussion and persuasion, which is what colleges and universities do best. Perhaps this would have best served the objectives of the committee to make W&L more inclusive.

      Not a bad idea.

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