Students protest University Chapel speaker in lead-up to MLK Day

Over 100 students staged a silent walkout during a speech by Rodney Mims Cook Jr., ’78, honoring Robert E. Lee

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Over 100 law and undergraduate students gathered outside University Chapel Jan. 12 to protest a talk by alumnus and Generals Redoubt director Rodney Mims Cook Jr. drawing similarities between Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee. Photo by Bri Hatch, ’23

Bri Hatch, Emma Malinak, and Shauna Muckle

Roughly 50 attendees, many of them Lexington community members, quietly seated themselves in University Chapel at 7:15 p.m. on Jan. 12, 15 minutes before Rodney Mims Cook Jr., ’78, was scheduled to speak.
Minutes later, a group of over 100 law and undergraduate students gathered outside under a steady drizzle with signs reading, “white supremacy meeting straight ahead” and “say NO to false moral equivalency,” among other disparaging comments.
The students, led by the Black Law Students Association, were protesting the premise of Cook’s talk. Cook was invited by the Generals Redoubt, an organization that advocates for restoring Lee’s legacy at Washington and Lee, and campus conservative groups to give a presentation likening Robert E. Lee’s legacy to Martin Luther King Jr.’s.
On the stage during the event stood a 40-pound replica statue of King. The authentic version sits in Rodney Mims Cook Sr. Park—Cook’s father is the park’s namesake—in Atlanta.
In a rallying speech before the talk, BLSA President Kobie Crosley, ’23L, said the event “ignores Black voices and is not an attempt at unity, despite what the organizers might say.”

A group of people walk between rows of seats in a large chapel. One man holds a phone flashlight over his head.
BLSA President Kobie Crosley, ’23L, led protestors in a walkout as soon as Cook began to speak. The shining light is a symbol to call out whitewashing and fight for truth. Photo by Bri Hatch, ’23

Crosley told the protesters to sit near the front of the chapel. At that point, Public Safety officers posted outside told the students they had to leave their signs outside chapel doors.
As soon as Cook started talking, Crosley used a light, meant to represent the whitewashing of Lee’s legacy, to signal to his fellow protestors. They then stood up and silently left the chapel.
“Real mature guys,” one attendee said to the students as they exited.
“We’re peacefully protesting,” replied Blake Ramsey, ’23, vice president of College Democrats.
Crosley said he organized the event after hearing concerns from fellow students at the law school. The law school’s Federalist Society helped organize the talk. Undergraduate organizations like College Democrats helped amplify the protest.
Students “expressed concern because of what the event was about, or what the event was advertising to represent,” Crosley said. “We found it especially problematic to be drawing any sort of parallels or making comparisons between Dr. King and the legacy that he has as a nonviolent advocate for social justice and racial equality with Robert E. Lee, whose legacy people already know and understand is problematic because of the racial oppression that people associate, rightfully so, with his legacy.”
Crosley said it was important that, in keeping with King’s legacy, the protest remained peaceful.
“Our peaceful demonstration, walking out in silence, was as much respect as I think is warranted for something that’s so absurd as the foundation of what this event is about,” he said.
Other student protestors said that regardless of outcome, the protest communicated fierce student opposition to Lost Cause rhetoric on Washington and Lee’s campus.

A crowd of people stand in the rain holding signs and umbrellas. Two signs read, "if you're not angry you're not paying attention" and "educate yourself about the actual history."
The assembled students carried signs denouncing Cook’s comparison of King and Lee. Photo by Bri Hatch ’23

Maydali Rosado, ’26, said that especially at a school named after Lee, it’s crucial for administrators to see “that students are just not settling for this stuff anymore.”
Meanwhile, Dominique Cravens, ’24L, vice president of BLSA, said she hoped the walkout forced attendees to realize what the event truly symbolized for students.
“I would hope that they would see that it was an upsetting event, for that many people to walk out,” Cravens said. “I hope they walked away feeling like maybe what’s being said here is not accurate or a promotion of peace. But more importantly, I hope that students of color on this campus felt supported and felt like their voices were heard by participating in this protest.”
Once the protestors left the chapel, Cook continued with his talk. When asked for his thoughts on the protest by an audience member, Cook took a moment to dig at the students: he said that the speech “might have been too long for them, anyway.”
Cook claimed protestors hesitated to leave after hearing his introduction.
“They were supposed to be disruptive, our friends at the law school said,” Cook said.
Crosley said protestors were invited to remain and engage with the talk. But to stay would have validated an intellectually dishonest argument, he said.

Cook graduated from Washington and Lee in 1978 and is the founder and president of the National Monuments Foundation, an organization that develops civic and historic restoration projects. He focused his Jan. 12 presentation on “the exemplary lives of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee” and how Washington and Lee has shaped the Cook family.
After discussing Washington’s leadership qualities, Cook turned his attention to the university’s second namesake.

A man in a suit and tie stands at a podium on a stage.
Cook stood before a replica statue of King as he praised Lee’s legacy and connected that legacy to his family’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Photo by Bri Hatch, ’23

“Lee so improved the college as no president in our 270 year plus history has before or since,” Cook said, citing Lee’s establishment of undergraduate courses in business, journalism and modern languages and his expansion of the natural sciences departments.
Cook said it was these developments that shaped his father to be a leader. After graduating from Washington and Lee in 1947, Cook Sr. served as an Atlanta city alderman, member of the Georgia House of Representatives and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement.
Lee’s decision to lead Washington and Lee after the Civil War inspired Cook Sr. to pursue this career, Cook said.
“My father was convinced that Lincoln won the war, but Lee won the peace,” he said. “Many would have perpetuated guerilla warfare if [Lee] had given the word. He did the opposite, and that compelled my father to continue Lee’s legacy of rebuilding the south.”
Cook said that his family was close with King’s family, and he explained how Cook Sr. promoted King and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Cook said that his father often received backlash for his position, the most violent of which occurred when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his yard.
Cook’s voice often cracked with emotion as he remembered his father’s commitment to encouraging unity in Atlanta. He expressed his disappointment with the division and hate that exist in the United States today.
After comparing two quotes about community—one by Lee and one by King—Cook said he believes that the two men had similar goals for peace, but that peace may no longer exist at Washington and Lee.
“Robert E. Lee built Dr. King’s beloved community here,” he said. “Does it still exist?”