Chris Graham: Robert E. Lee, the Confederate flag, and Washington and Lee

confederate-flag-headerIt’s hard at first glance to imagine Washington and Lee University scrubbing its Lexington, Va., campus of Confederate flags and other signs of the Old South, but that’s what a group of law students at Washington and Lee is demanding, with the most controversial request of the self-styled Committee being that the school repudiate one of its namesakes, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who after the Civil War served as president of the school.

If the demands of The Committee are not met by Sept. 1, the seven-member student group said it will begin a campaign of civil disobedience, a rather light threat that nonetheless has gained the attention of school officials, with W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio saying last week that the school is taking the students’ demands seriously and that they will be addressed.

It’s just, again, hard to imagine how the two sides can come to a consensus, at least at this point. The Committee is specifically requesting that the school apologize for Lee’s “racist and dishonorable conduct,” remove Confederate battle flags from the school chapel, ban Confederate re-enactors from the campus on Lee-Jackson Day, a state holiday that is marked in a long four-day weekend with the state and federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and fully recognize the MLK holiday on its undergraduate campus.

This is, to put it bluntly, a line-in-the-sand set of demands at a school named Washington and Lee. The big issue with Lee is that, in addition to being a former W&L president and namesake, his remains are buried on the school grounds, so short of digging him and his beloved horse, Traveller, out of the earth and finding another final resting place for them, his literal presence on campus will always be felt.

It is highly doubtful that you’ll ever see Washington and Lee repudiate Lee with anything resembling a statement decrying his “racist and dishonorable conduct” and apologize for its connections to the institution of slavery, essentially treating George Washington, our nation’s first president and former slaveowner who endowed a $20,000 to the former Augusta Academy in 1796, as an unindicted co-conspirator in doing so.

The Confederate flags in Lee Chapel and other locations on campus are a bit of a different matter – historical markers, yes, but we’re talking five years of the school’s 265-year history tied up in Lee’s presidency at what was then known as Washington College. In the intervening years, the Confederate flag and its public display has become a political symbol for those who use the cover of so-called Southern heritage to mask racial and cultural intolerance.

Their continued display in Lee Chapel at other locations on the W&L campus may indeed serve a historical purpose, but the historical significance has long since been lost with what the battle flag has come to symbolize in the past 60 years.

Given Lee’s role in Washington and Lee history, though, a suitable compromise on this point would seem to involve keeping the flags in Lee Chapel and removing them from other locations on campus.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans marches on Lee-Jackson Day seems like an easy issue to resolve: don’t allow them anymore. It also seems easy to take care of the MLK Day observance: go ahead and cancel classes for undergrads on King’s birthday.

That these issues are being raised by law students suggests that compromise can eventually be achieved, if their professors have been able to get across to them the art of negotiation at this point in their education.

What The Committee will be able to claim as victory when it’s all said and done will remain to be seen.



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