Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A group of black students at a university in Virginia want the school to remove the Confederate flags displayed in its chapel.


That might sound reasonable, but the university in question is Washington and Lee, named after former commander of the Confederate forces Gen. Robert E. Lee. The flags in the chapel are replicas of historical battle flags.

Like most discussions around history and race, the story is complicated. Did Lee lead the Confederate forces that desperately wanted to preserve the right to keep slaves? Yes. Did Lee also serve as president of the university following the Civil War, after which his moniker was added to its title? Yes.


Like it or not, the university is messily, inextricably tied to an unsavory part of the nation’s history. And the school says it has tried to approach it’s contentious past with sensitivity.

However, a dozen or so students say they feel ostracized and will stage acts of civil disobedience until the school meets the following demands:

1. That the university fully recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the undergraduate campus.

2. That the university stop allowing neo-Confederates to march on campus with Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day (a state holiday that honors former Confederate leaders) and to stop allowing these groups to hold programs in Lee Chapel.

3. That the university immediately remove all Confederate flags from its property, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.


4. That the university issue an official apology for its participation in slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee's participation in slavery.

Wanting to ban Confederate flags is one thing — and there have been and will continue to be raging battles about how far free speech should extend — but what about when the request comes from students who knowingly attend a school so directly linked to the Confederate general?


The protesting students acknowledge that it was their decision to attend the university, but say they decided the law degree was too valuable to pass up and that the school should do more to atone for its past.

How widespread the discontent is remains unclear. Those behind the movement have been vocal about advocating their cause in the media while the university has remained relatively quiet. Regardless, it’s clear that there is some discord on campus and festering discord, particularly when race is involved, ends poorly.


With that in mind, University President Kenneth Ruscio wrote in a letter to the school community, which a spokesman emailed to Fusion, that school officials will carefully consider the students’ concerns. He has also asked the university’s provost to meet with them.

In the letter, he pointed out that the flags are historical replicas and that the school already recognizes King with a campus-wide MLK Legacy Week. He added that the university does not observe Lee-Jackson day, but that the chapel is open to use by non-university groups.


“The students have raised important questions that relate to ongoing discussions at the University,” he wrote. “I welcome their contributions and those of all members of the University community. I am certain we can address these matters in a manner that is both respectful and productive.”

It’s not the first time Ruscio has grappled with his school’s controversial history or Lee’s complexities as a human being. He wrote in an eloquent 2012 essay for Inside Higher Ed:

Lee was a dignified, humble man. His sense of duty and honor would cause him to cringe if he ever became the subject of idolatry or the embodiment of myth. Blindly, superficially and reflexively rushing to his defense is no less an affront to history than blindly, superficially and reflexively attacking him. What he needs, what he deserves, and what his record can withstand is the honest appraisal of those who have not made up their minds, who can appreciate the man with all his complexities and contradictions. History is indeed not kind enough to present us with simple morality tales.


More to the point, a university serves its students best by not imposing an orthodox point of view about the past and certainly not the future. Higher education, no less than other institutions, is a victim of our politicized society. The things we do — the courses we teach, the values we espouse, the faculty we hire — should not be subjected to ideological litmus tests.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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