University denies Sons of the Confederate Veterans

Sons of Confederate Veterans will not be allowed to use Lee Chapel for its annual Lee-Jackson Day celebrations for the first time in a decade

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Kelly Swanson

The Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has been denied the use of Lee Chapel, the burial site of Confederate War General Robert E. Lee, for their annual celebration of Lee-Jackson Day, continuing Washington and Lee’s recent struggle with its historic and controversial connections to the Confederacy.

Lee-Jackson Day, held annually in Lexington, VA, on the Friday before the national Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a celebration of the lives of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The Stonewall Brigade, a division of the heritage group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has hosted their Lee-Jackson festivities in Lee Chapel for the past 10 years.

However, that tradition has now ended. W&L has denied the request of the Stonewall Brigade to use Lee Chapel for next year’s Lee-Jackson day, after the university said it received messages from members of the SVC that included “persistent name-calling, vilification and uncivil attacks,”  Brian Eckert, W&L’s spokesman, said.

“Washington and Lee has decided to deny use of Lee Chapel to the Stonewall Brigade of the SCV for a Lee-Jackson Day program, after determining that hosting the program would not be in the best interests of the university and is not an appropriate use of the Chapel,” Eckert said.

The denial of access to the chapel was not the first cut that severed the relationship between the heritage group and the university. Members from the Stonewall Brigade have strongly disagreed with the school’s decision in July of 2014 to relocate the Confederate flags from the chapel to the Museum below it, an action taken after a group of W&L law students, who called themselves “The Committee,” wrote a letter demanding their removal.

Following this decision, the university began to receive threatening messages through email and social media from members of the SCV.

“YOU F***ING MARXIST C***SUCKER!!! You gave in to the demands of a bunch of Fa***t minded #Obama loving Marxists piece of sh*** & betrayed what America and good Christian folks like Robert E. Lee stand for,” said an email to W&L President Kenneth Ruscio.

Another email contained the subject line, “A CRIME IS GOING TO BE COMMITTED.”

Ben Jones, the National Press Secretary for the SCV, said he has no knowledge of any threatening messages sent to the school. He conceded that individual members of the SCV may have sent angry messages, but their opinions are not representative of the organization as a whole.

“It may have been individual members or people who weren’t affiliated with the group at all,” Jones said. “These messages may be from the Klan or Aryan brotherhood. To paint us all in the same flesh because [Ruscio] got a threatening message is wrong.”

Eckert, however, says that many of the offensive messages received by the school were from self-identified members and officers of the SCV.

“Although we knew that members of some outside groups might disagree with the decision regarding flags in the Chapel statue room…we hoped that as a heritage group the SCV in particular would recognize the importance of our installing original flags in the Lee Chapel Museum,” Eckert said.

Jones says that the decision to move the flags represents the “ivory tower thinking” of college campuses.

“These people up there in their ivory towers have convinced themselves that they are striking a blow against hatred,” Jones said. “But, in my opinion, this is cultural cleansing of any positive vestiges of the Confederacy. Because these people are so self-righteous and so sanctimonious, they are going to destroy the things that they don’t like or understand.”

Jones explained that he believes that there are two ways the flags can be interpreted. He viewed the flags next to Lee’s grave as a symbol of southern pride, not racism.

“This is not simply all these evil, southern, racist, big*** flying this flag of hatred and oppression. In all frankness, that is all bu******,” Jones said. “There are many different contexts that one can see symbols in. Anyone can see the difference between a flag on the grave of General Lee and a bunch of fools in a cornfield with white sheets over their heads waving flags.”

Jones said he had requested to speak with President Ruscio following the removal of the flags and the denial of the SCV’s request to use the chapel, but Ruscio refused to meet with him.

“I’ve met with Gorbachev, I’ve traveled with President Carter and traveled to all sorts of different countries and met with several different heads of state,” Jones said. “But this guy refuses to meet with me over an issue that is of great concern to tens of millions of Americans who are descendants of the confederacy.”

Jones previously served as a Congressman from Georgia and played Cooter Davenport in The Dukes of Hazzard.

“What I am trying to do is build bridges of understanding,” said Jones. “And I’ve never met anybody in academia who is afraid to do that until I got the letter from President Ruscio [refusing Jones’s request to meet]. He is a coward.”

Eckert confirmed that Ruscio declined to meet with Jones to discuss the removal of the flags. However, Eckert said that he was not aware of any additional requests made by Jones to meet with Ruscio after the SCV were denied use of Lee Chapel.

Hernandez Stroud, who was a member of The Committee and the President of the Black Law Students Association for 2013-2014, said that Ruscio’s decision to not allow the group to use the chapel is consistent with W&L’s deeply rooted honor code.

“At the core of our honor system is the main tenant that says that breaches of the community’s trust will not be tolerated,” Stroud said. “This is about civility. This is about integrity. This is about the university’s commitment to its core values. I think that all of the decisions that have been around these issues are age old and complicated, but also consistent with an eye toward the future and the honor system by which we abide.”

However, Stroud says that The Committee’s fight is not yet won.

“What was composed in that letter was by in large symbolic changes and I think that real change happens when you do more than just tinker with the system,” Stroud said. “There has to be some changing of the emotional landscape and the fabric of the institution.”

Jones says that the SCV will still continue to celebrate Lee-Jackson day as always, but the group will have to find a new location.

“We want to build bridges between races. This is not the way to racial harmony. All it is is the way to divisiveness, mean spirited, holier than thou, and this President Ruscio is the drum major for all of that stuff,” said Jones.