Confederate Flags Create Campus Divide


Halimah Najieb-Locke is the national chair of the National Black Law Students Association.

On its website, the school describes Lee Chapel—where the flags hang—as “a gathering place for the University’s most important academic events.” Both the chapel and the school are named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who served as the university’s president after the Civil War.
But Lee also owned slaves, a fact that the Committee highlighted. In addition to asking the administration to remove the flags, it demanded that it apologize for the university’s previous ownership of slaves and for the “racist and dishonorable conduct of Robert E. Lee”; cancel undergraduate classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; and stop Confederate re-enactors from being on campus on the Lee-Jackson Day (which commemorates Lee and another Confederate general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson). The Committee said that should the university fail to respond by Sept. 1, it would engage in acts of civil disobedience.
It didn’t come to that. Washington and Lee promised to move the flags from the auditorium to the museum portion of the chapel. Kenneth P. Ruscio, the university’s president, also wrote a letter apologizing for the school’s past ties to slavery: “We acknowledge that this was a regrettable chapter in our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter,” he wrote. “Acknowledging that historical record—and acknowledging the contributions of those individuals—will require coming to terms with a part of our past that we wish had been different but that we cannot ignore.”
The university did not fulfill all the demands, though. For one, it will leave the decision of whether to cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day up to individual faculty members, and Ruscio said he will recommend that they keep classes running. He explained his reasoning in a message to the community: “The question has never been whether or not we ‘fully recognize’ King Day; the question is how we choose to honor Dr. King,” he wrote. “For many years, we have offered both the W&L and Lexington communities an impressive array of presentations, service projects and performances to commemorate Dr. King’s life . . . . Canceling classes may have symbolic significance; I prefer the substance of our current programs over the symbolism of a day off.”
Halimah feels that while the school did the right thing by largely giving the protestors what they wanted, it was slow to act. “This is a step in the right direction,” she says. “You can’t make change all in one swoop.” Nevertheless, she asks why the issue had to grow to the point of receiving national attention; she also asks why the university took more than two months to respond. “I don’t understand what, exactly, was the delay,” she says.
Some might wonder if moving a flag really makes a difference. Halimah notes that when promoting inclusivity, it’s important for law schools to take a multi-pronged approach, one that addresses everything from admissions to orientation to the faculty to symbolic elements like the Confederate flag. She wonders: If you can’t get that last part right, how can you possibly tackle the big stuff?