The historic Virginia school Washington and Lee University recently made national headlines when its president, Kenneth P. Ruscio, made a public announcement declaring the university's decision to remove Confederate flags from its chapel. The president's decision followed a black-student-organized campaign aimed at redressing the university's historical legacy of racial antagonism. In the interview below, I engage Washington and Lee Law School student Brandon Hicks, who was a principal organizer of the student group.
Darnell: Why did you choose to attend Washington and Lee University's Law School, given its history?
Brandon: I chose to attend Washington and Lee because it is good school. I felt very welcomed during orientation. I did understand that it was named after two slave holders, one of which was a Confederate general. Still, I was not aware of the vibrant revisionist history of the Civil War that shaped the community's discourse and practices. Also, I did not have a nuanced understanding of the ways that the experiences of black and brown people can easily be muted at predominately white institutions. I went to North Carolina Central University, a historically black university. I knew that my time at any predominately white law school would be different from my time at NCCU. Still, there were many things that I wasn't prepared for.
Darnell: What is "The Committee"? What was the motivation behind the formation of this student organizing group on your campus?
Brandon: The Committee is an organization comprised of law students at Washington and Lee. We came together to address issues of racial inclusiveness on campus. We were inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Our name is us paying homage to them.
The first line of the demand letter that we issued states, "After experiencing alienation and discomfort, we The Committee have assembled." Members of The Committee were very tired of feeling like our school was indifferent to our feelings. Specifically, we were frustrated by the university's glorification of Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy. On our first day of orientation, we were all mandated to attend an honor ceremony in Lee Chapel, where Confederate flags were prominently displayed. We also had to listen to a speech that lauded Robert E. Lee as an honorable person. Many of the members of The Committee vocally expressed how uncomfortable they were by the event. Still, this ceremony was mild compared to what we experienced in January. In Lexington, Virginia, there is an annual celebration of Lee-Jackson Day. The holiday celebrates the lives of Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. In 1928 W.E.B. DuBois described the holiday as "a renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee" by ignoring the fact that "Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate human slavery." On this day, I and other black classmates had to walk to campus and pass by men wielding huge Confederate flags. One of my classmates wrote a Facebook post describing how he left town every year on Lee-Jackson Day to avoid the disturbing festivities. Another classmate told a story of calling his mother in tears after seeing the neo-Confederates. After this year's Lee-Jackson Day events, we were determined to try and create change on campus.
During our first few meetings, we tried to determine if change was possible in such a hostile environment. We had many debates about what we could realistically achieve. Also, many members were concerned about how aggressively we should pursue our goals. After debates and votes we determined that we needed to issue demands to the university, with a set timetable for the demands to be met. We also pledged that we were willing to engage in acts of civil disobedience if our demands were not met. The meetings leading up to the issuance of the demand letter were very intense and very productive.
Darnell: The Committee produced and released a letter to your university president detailing four demands. What were your specific asks? And have they been met?
Brandon: We demanded that the university (1) fully recognize Martin Luther King Day on the undergraduate campus, (2) stop allowing neo-Confederates to march onto campus with Confederate flags and hold programming in the university chapel on Lee-Jackson Day, (3) remove Confederate flags from campus buildings, and (4) issue an apology for the university's involvement in chattel slavery. During our meetings we discussed things that made us uncomfortable about being at Washington and Lee. In determining the goals we were very democratic. These are the four issues that we could reach a consensus around.
On July 8, 2014, the president of Washington and Lee sent out an email which addressed the concerns raised by The Committee. The letter went point by point about all of the issues we raised. The email did not give us everything that we asked for, but we did achieve a lot. The Confederate flag will no longer be displayed in the university chapel, the faculty will soon vote on recognizing Martin Luther King Day on the undergraduate campus, and the president issued a statement of regret for the institution owning enslaved African Americans. News reports have said that there have been Confederate flags displayed in the chapel since the 1930s. The fact that The Committee was able to help get them removed is really amazing. This was all done within the timetable that The Committee established.
Darnell: Can you say more about how you see your action as one of unity?
Brandon: The letter alluded to some of the media coverage as being divisive. The Committee was formed with good intentions. Our efforts have yielded positive results for the university and for current and future black students at Washington and Lee.
Darnell: What is your response to the president's letter to campus? And what actions will the university actually take to address the concerns illuminated in your letter?
Brandon: Overall, I was pleased by the email. The university took a huge step by removing the flags. I believe the administration when they say they are trying to create a more inclusive campus. There are ongoing discussions about ways to improve campus climate. Several of the concerns illuminated in the letter are being addressed now. The next step for the university will probably be to continue these conversations with black students. The Committee was organized because we felt ignored. If the university continues communicating with black students and implementing policies that meet the needs of black students, there will not be the need for future students to act similarly to The Committee.
Darnell: You've received encouraging words, but some have also warned you that your actions might prompt retaliation from white racial supremacists and those who strongly support preservation and celebration of the Confederacy. Have you received any hate messages from others?
Brandon: Last semester, members of The Committee received some threatening messages. We were also the subject of a few white-supremacist websites. It was really scary. Despite the threats, members of The Committee remained committed to the group and our goals. Thankfully, no one has received any threats recently. Still, we are mindful that our actions do have consequences. People are passionate about these topics.
Darnell: What are your next steps or hopes?
Brandon: The Committee will continue to push the campus forward by promoting inclusiveness and diversity. We plan to regularly meet with school administration about ways to make Washington and Lee a more welcoming environment for all students.