West Point Can’t Hide Its Reverence for the Confederacy
Charlottesville, Va., triggered a movement. In the wake of a 2017 white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally that left one dead and several injured, activists across the country have worked diligently to exorcise the lingering ghosts of the Confederacy. Most recently, a coalition of anti-racist students at the University of North Carolina brought down a statue of “Silent Sam”—the latest in a series of victories over the chintzy reification of white supremacy.
And yet from Seattle to Pennsylvania, totems of racial violence can be found just around the corner. Take the nation’s pre-eminent military academy—and my alma mater—the U.S. Military Academy, or West Point.
Past the main entrance of Thayer Gate stands the hulking Lee Barracks, named for that most famous of slave-owning generals—and the school’s former superintendent—Robert E. Lee. Across the way, Reconciliation Plaza Memorial features a granite sculpture of Lee’s head and a wildly ahistorical placard (more on this later). Past that, Jefferson Hall prominently displays a nearly 6-foot-tall painting of the Confederate commander. But perhaps most egregious of all is the Lee painting located in the residence of the superintendent of West Point (Quarters 100), in plain sight, for all to see.
Travel in any direction on the campus and sooner or later you’ll be confronted with the Confederacy. And not just visually. The West Point Band routinely plays cadets into the mess hall to the tune of “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” an 1861 march celebrating the secessionists’ will to preserve slavery.
These are not simply historical flourishes. Each painting and monument raises urgent questions about the lessons we’ve taken from the Civil War.
The sordid legacy of the Confederacy cannot be tolerated. Whether or not Trump qualifies as a fascist himself, his presidency has unleashed a wave of authoritarianism across the country. Any public work that honors a soldier who sought to shackle human beings as personal property only emboldens these destructive forces. Of course, liberals and conservatives who fetishize an abstract idea of free speech plead that the removal and/or destruction of Confederate monuments constitutes an erasure of history. Their intellectual dishonesty is staggering. The United States Civil War was fought over slavery, full stop. Therefore, we must take down the structures that preserve a profoundly racist legacy, if we are to have any sense of history at all. This endeavor is not just a moral imperative but our collective duty as Americans.
There can be no reconciliation with the Confederate states of America. West Point’s Reconciliation Plaza evokes a white supremacist narrative that served as the climax of director D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”—one in which white males of the North and South reunited to carry out retributive violence against freed slaves. That white people desired revenge against blacks speaks to the film’s grotesque fantasy. This “reconciliation” mythology, alongside Jim Crow and the so-called Lost Cause of the Confederacy, helped enable the subjugation of black people in America for decades. We bear witness to the consequences of this destructive narrative every day. Is it any wonder that 16 of my classmates were viciously castigated, both in the press and at West Point itself, following the release of a photograph in which they displayed their pride as black women?
Historian Howard Zinn maintained that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train,” and his words have never rung truer. America’s Founding Fathers were white, slave-owning, propertied males. Where does that place the legacy of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? If you value liberty and human dignity, the answer should be clear.
Symbolic victories are important, and the toppling of Confederate statues are not mere optics. These victories, however fleeting, inspire others to continue the fight against racial injustice. By leveling these structures, we affirm our immovable presence in the minds of our subjugators. For years now, I and others have confronted the administrators of West Point about the school’s Confederate iconography. They continue to drag their feet.
Enough is enough. Whether you’re a soldier, a cadet or a civilian, clinging to an imagined objectivity or neutrality is an act of cowardice. It is high time we come together and dismantle these racist structures permanently, not just in word but in deed. As for how we might carry out our endeavors, we might look to another West Point graduate, William Tecumseh Sherman. Until our demands are met, we continue the long march.