VMI should take down Stonewall Jack­son

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OPINIONS - BY CONOR POW­ELL AND MICHAEL R. PURDY Conor Pow­ell, a free­lance jour­nal­ist and host of “Long Shots” pod­cast, lives in Los An­ge­les and is a 1999 grad­u­ate of VMI. Con­tact him at LongShot­sPod@gmail.com Michael R. Purdy is an at­tor­ney at Google in Wash­ing­ton,

As Amer­i­cans are con­fronted once again with a so­ci­etal con­fla­gra­tion ig­nited by a com­bi­na­tion of po­lice bru­tal­ity and our na­tion’s orig­i­nal sins of slav­ery and racial in­equal­ity, we are now more than ever forced as cit­i­zens to ex­am­ine what we can do to move our na­tion be­yond this sad legacy.

The Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute (VMI) prides it­self as be­ing a train­ing ground for Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary and civil­ian lead­er­ship, and as such, it must re­flect and take ac­tion to help heal these wounds. Given its deep his­tory with the Civil War — its grad­u­ates sup­plied scores of of­fi­cers for the Con­fed­er­ate Army and its cadets fa­mously fought and died at the 1864 Bat­tle of New Mar­ket — there is per­haps no bet­ter in­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try to lead on this is­sue.

While the cru­cible of mil­i­tary cadet­ship at VMI has pro­duced lead­ers as di­verse in their con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can life as Sec­re­tary of State and No­bel Peace Prize re­cip­i­ent Gen. Ge­orge C. Mar­shall, slain civil rights leader Jonathan Daniels, the cur­rent Sec­re­tary of the Army, Ryan McCarthy, and re­cently de­ceased co­me­dian Fred Wil­lard, the in­sti­tute nev­er­the­less con­tin­ues to em­brace back­ward-look­ing sym­bols of Con­fed­er­ate iconog­ra­phy that do dam­age to our na­tional di­a­logue on race and to VMI it­self as an in­sti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing.

It’s time for VMI to live up to the prin­ci­ples of honor, lead­er­ship and eq­uity upon which it was founded and shed once and for all its em­brace of this iconog­ra­phy, and in par­tic­u­lar of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jack­son.

The bronze statue of Stonewall Jack­son lords over VMI’s cen­tral pa­rade ground, en­shrined in front of the VMI bar­racks’ main gate — Jack­son Arch. Since 1912 when the statue was erected, Jack­son has lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively hov­ered over all as­pects of VMI’s life.

Un­til re­cently, first-year cadets — known semi­af­fec­tion­ately as “Rats” — were re­quired to salute Jack­son’s statue upon ex­it­ing bar­racks, just as all cadets were re­quired to salute the Amer­i­can flag. The mes­sage was clear, if con­tra­dic­tory: Stonewall Jack­son, a VMI pro­fes­sor who took up arms to de­stroy the union in de­fense of the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery, was to be hon­ored by cadets on equal foot­ing with our na­tion’s flag.

This in­sti­tu­tional em­brace of Stonewall Jack­son is jar­ring in light of what VMI’s grad­u­ates have ac­com­plished in the 155 years since the end of the Civil War. And VMI has by no means been frozen in time when it comes to is­sues of race. Shortly af­ter the ad­mis­sion of the first African Amer­i­can stu­dents in 1968, VMI cadets stopped march­ing with the in­fa­mous Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag.

Its band stopped play­ing “Dixie” more than 40 years ago. In 2004, the in­sti­tute named one of its four main arch­ways for Daniels, a 1961 grad­u­ate and cler­gy­man killed by a shot­gun blast while pro­tect­ing two African Amer­i­can women in 1965. To­day, Rats only salute the Amer­i­can flag and not Jack­son’s statue — a small, but im­por­tant, break with VMI’s past.

Most im­por­tant, African Amer­i­can grad­u­ates of VMI con­tinue to achieve great heights in mil­i­tary and civil­ian life.

As Amer­i­cans are by now aware, watch­ing this painful mo­ment in our na­tion’s his­tory un­fold in new hor­rific de­tail hour by hour, lead­ers and in­sti­tu­tions must step up to help right the wrongs of the past. In that light, nowis the time for VMI to lead from the front (as cadets are of­ten ad­mon­ished to do), re­move Jack­son’s statue from its prom­i­nent place in front of VMI’s bar­racks, and place it in a mu­seum with other ves­tiges of VMI’s past.

Fun­da­men­tally this wouldn’t be eras­ing or white wash­ing his­tory as Jack­son’s statue was not erected as a his­tory les­son, but as an ob­ject of ado­ra­tion. His legacy could con­tinue to serve as an in­valu­able les­son for cur­rent and fu­ture cadets: Choose your causes wisely and con­sider how fu­ture gen­er­a­tions might in­ter­pret your ac­tions.

As an in­sti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing, VMI has an obli­ga­tion to en­sure that it re­mains a mod­ern, for­ward-look­ing aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion ed­u­cat­ing a di­verse cadet corps ready to take on the man­tle of mod­ern lead­er­ship. With con­tin­ued post-COVID-19 dis­rup­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion on the hori­zon, a fail­ure by VMI to mod­ern­ize its mes­sage and its ap­peal to the cur­rent and fu­ture cadet corps could prove to be an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis for ev­ery alum­nus.

To­day, 181 years af­ter its found­ing, VMI’s his­tory is far richer than just its Civil War legacy. VMI men and women have dis­tin­guished them­selves in war and peace, so find­ing a wor­thy re­place­ment for Jack­son atop that gran­ite pedestal over­look­ing the pa­rade ground will not be an in­sur­mount­able chal­lenge for the VMI com­mu­nity. Rather, ac­cept­ing that now is the time to move for­ward will be our com­mu­nity’s sin­gle great­est chal­lenge.

To­day when cadets en­ter bar­racks through Jack­son Arch, they are con­fronted with one of Jack­son’s fa­vorite max­ims in large bronze let­ters:

“You may be what­ever you re­solve to be.”

We take this an­cient maxim to heart, and be­lieve to­day, with the right lead­er­ship and de­ci­sive ac­tion, we will be bet­ter as an in­sti­tu­tion than we were yesterday. Re­mov­ing the statue of Stonewall Jack­son is one step to­ward achiev­ing that goal.


The statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jack­son stands in front of the bar­racks on the Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary In­sti­tute cam­pus in Lexington. Jack­son served on the VMI fac­ulty from 1851-61.

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