Black students at Virginia's Washington and Lee University have issued an ultimatum: Denounce Robert E. Lee, one of the school's two namesakes, or face civil disobedience, the National Review Online reported Monday.
Students also want the school to apologize for what they call Lee’s “racist and dishonorable conduct,” remove Confederate battle flags from the chapel and ban Confederate reenactors from the campus on Lee-Jackson Day, a state holiday. They also want the university’s undergraduate school to cancel all classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Seven black law students, calling themselves “The Committee,” say that if the school does not cave to their demands, they will engage in acts of civil disobedience until their demands are met. The students gave the school until September 1 to meet their demands.
“The time has come for us, as students, to ask that the university hold itself responsible for its past and present dishonorable conduct and for the racist and dishonorable conduct of Robert E. Lee,” Breitbart.com reported, according to the Washington Times. Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War 150 years ago.
After the war, Lee served as president of the school and is buried on school grounds beneath the campus chapel. The school is also named after President George Washington, who gave a $20,000 gift to the school.
But the students say they were driven to make their demands after feeling “alienation and discomfort” while viewing the Confederate symbols. According to the Associated Press, one third-year law student reached a boiling point when Democrat strategist Donna Brazile was introduced as a speaker at Lee Chapel amid the Confederate flags.
“A lot of students of color have felt sort of ostracized during their time here," 24-year-old Dominik Taylor told the AP. Taylor, along with other members of the protest group, knew the university's history but signed up anyway, deciding that a law degree from the school was too good to pass up.
“Hey, it’s only three years. It can’t be that bad,” Taylor reportedly told the AP. “[But] when things such as Lee-Jackson Day happen, you’re just sort of feeling left alone and isolated and alienated.”
University president Kenneth Ruscio said he's created a special task force to consider the student's ultimatum. Ruscio says the task force will look into the school's history and "study the history of African Americans at the school.”
“While we are aware of some of that history, I believe we should have a thorough, candid examination,” he added.
But, the Washington Post said, the group's actions are seen as divisive among black students on campus.
“I think that a lot of people believe that water could have been used to solve these issues instead of fire,” said Hernandez Stroud, a second-year law student from Huntsville, Alabama. Stroud, the Post added, is president of the school’s Black Law Students Association.
The college graduated its first black law student in 1969. Today, 34 students, or about 8 percent of the school's law students, are black. Overall, black students make up about 3.5 percent of the total school population.