Posted on July 12, 2021

America’s Racial Awakening Forces Virginia Military Institute to Confront Its Past—and Future

Molly Ball, Time, May 27, 2021

It was a cold morning last December when they finally took Stonewall Jackson down. No ceremony was held, no protesters gathered; snowflakes swirled in the air. A crane silently hoisted the enormous bronze Confederate general from his perch of 108 years.

To many graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, that was no way to treat a hero. In a Facebook group for the “VMI Spirit,” alumni mourned the “erasing” of their cherished history. One called it “ethnic cleansing.” Several vowed to write the school out of their wills. “Shame on you low-life PsOS that were involved in this decision,” another man wrote. “May you be haunted nightly, by the Sons and Daughters of Virginia that fought and lost their lives in the War between the States.”

The statue’s removal ended a saga that divided the state-sponsored military academy in Lexington, Va., whose graduates include a recent Army secretary, the governor of Virginia, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a civil rights hero and the late actor Fred Willard. For a small group of VMI alums who had been pushing for change at the 181-year-old school, it was a victory—but only a first step.

The four activists, men in their 40s, had all once considered themselves conservatives. A Marine officer, a corporate lawyer, a civil engineer and a former Fox News correspondent, they treasured their unorthodox college experience, from the intentionally dehumanizing freshman “ratline” to the nearly two centuries of military history. But the events of recent years had awakened them, like many Americans, to the injustice all around them, and they had come to see the school’s continuing veneration of its Confederate past as an embarrassing stain. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, removing the statue, they believed, was necessary but not sufficient to root out the racism plaguing their alma mater.

Many of their fellow grads did not agree. The ensuing controversy toppled the school’s leadership and imperiled its funding. An independent investigation, ordered by the state, is probing the racial climate on campus after reports of racist behavior, from lynching threats to the disproportionate disciplining of Black students. And the institutional resistance the change agents faced radicalized them.

Their fight is a parable for our times. Recent years have seen a rapid, massive shift in America’s collective racial consciousness. At the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, one poll found the proportion of Americans who see racism as a “big problem” had surged to 76%, a 25-point increase in five years. It is the most profound shift in racial attitudes in a generation or more.

The change is likely just beginning. So is the backlash. Conservative politicians and right-wing media are decrying “cancel culture.” States are pursuing bans on “critical race theory” at public schools. Wokeness—a term that originated in the Black community and has become a touchstone for advocates and critics alike—is now the central axis of American political controversy.

Thrown by the cultural upheaval, institutions like the military, corporations and professional sports teams are trying to find their footing. What feels to liberals like an overdue breakthrough strikes conservatives as a sudden personal attack. And as our still contested history shows, fights like the one at VMI will reverberate into the decades to come.

The Jackson statue occupied a central position in front of the hulking, Gothic barracks that house VMI’s 1,700 undergraduate “cadets.” The freshman “rats” were long required to salute it as they left the barracks through a stone arch bearing the general’s name. VMI says it dropped the saluting requirement in 2015, years before the statue came down. But this isn’t really true, I found: three recent graduates told me rats still had to salute in Jackson’s direction as recently as last year. The rulebook was merely changed to specify the salute be directed at the flag visible over the statue’s shoulder, something Black cadets had informally done for decades.

Today, no plaque marks the spot from which Jackson was yanked. All that remains is a flat patch of red bricks. Jackson, who is believed to have enslaved six people, taught physics at the institute for 10 years before joining the rebellion in 1861. He was not much of a professor, according to official histories: humorless and a poor communicator, he was the target of student pranks. In 1863, after leading the Confederate army in numerous major battles, Jackson died following a friendly-fire incident. He was buried less than a mile from VMI’s campus.

Founded in 1839 to guard the state arsenal, VMI sent thousands of students and graduates to fight for the Confederacy. In May 1864, 257 cadets, some as young as 15, marched 80 miles to the Battle of New Market, Va., in what is believed to be the only time in U.S. history a college’s student body has fought as a combat unit. Forty-five were wounded and 10 died.

Despite his undistinguished academic career, Jackson’s legacy has long pervaded the campus, known at VMI as “post.” Since the 1950s, a quote attributed to the general has been emblazoned on an interior archway as you enter VMI’s barracks: “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” The maxim, a favorite of Jackson’s, was apparently drawn from a reverend’s book of sayings the general carried. And Shah Rahman took the instruction to heart.

From the day he arrived at VMI in the fall of 1993, Rahman imbibed the institute’s mythology. His reasons for attending were unorthodox: as a child in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, where his parents had moved from their native Bangladesh, he acquired a taste for military symbolism, and fell in love with a serialization of Gone With the Wind on Libyan TV. {snip}


{snip} As head cadet in the school’s museum, he led visitors on tours of the Confederate history it contained, including an exhibit on the VMI cadets who guarded the gallows at the 1859 hanging of the radical abolitionist John Brown—an execution overseen by the school’s founding superintendent, Francis Smith. When a Northern visitor insisted Brown was a hero, not a criminal, Rahman reacted with confusion and anger. Under his photo in the 1997 yearbook he had printed, “Inspired by Stonewall Jackson and General Patton, my boyish dreams came to life the day I matriculated at VMI.”

It would be two decades before Rahman questioned what he’d been taught. In August 2017, right-wing activists gathered at a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, an hour’s drive from VMI, to protest a push to remove it. Rahman’s first reaction was to wonder what kind of person would want to tear down a likeness of the great Robert E. Lee. “Then you quickly realize, Wait a minute, these people are a bunch of white supremacists,” he recalls. “I was so brainwashed I had never thought to question it. It never really occurred to me until that moment that these people we’d been taught to worship as heroes—they were scumbags and traitors, fighting their own country.”

The following year, Rahman attended a VMI alumni fundraiser in Texas headlined by the school’s superintendent, J.H. Binford “Binnie” Peay III, a retired four-star Army general. In the wake of Charlottesville, protesters were calling for the removal of Confederate iconography across the country. Some of the alumni at the fundraiser asked Peay, who is white, what would happen to the statues at VMI.

As Rahman recalls it, Peay became agitated. His face went red, and he balled one hand into a fist. The statues, he vowed, would never come down on his watch. (Through a school spokesman, Peay declined to comment.)

Rahman was not the only one reconsidering things he’d learned at VMI. The Jackson statue survived the post-Charlottesville furor, but it wasn’t long before calls for change began anew. In June 2020, as protests over Floyd’s murder spread, a recent graduate named Kaleb Tucker posted a petition calling for the school “to acknowledge the racism and black prejudice that still occurs at VMI.” A good first step, wrote Tucker, who is Black, would be taking down the Jackson statue.

The petition drew hundreds of signatures, and stiff opposition. In a counter-petition titled “A Defense of the Stonewall Jackson Monument and VMI’s Sacred Heritage,” Jeremy Sanders, a white 2015 graduate, wrote that the school was “under attack” by “those who despise the very foundations of our beloved Institute.” Jackson, he wrote, “was not a perfect man, however he must be judged through the context of his age.” Yes, Jackson owned slaves, but he taught them to read and write, Sanders noted. He wondered where it would end: Should George Washington’s statue also be removed, or the New Market cadets’ graves dug up? Sanders urged the school to repudiate the “slanderous” claims of racism. His petition drew more signatures in a day than Tucker’s had in two weeks.

The school tried to show empathy. “I have struggled with ways to address you, this tragedy and senseless death of George Floyd in a meaningful way that is not just another lofty statement and one of platitudes,” Peay wrote in a June 2020 letter to the community. VMI had always sought to balance tradition with needed change, he wrote, pointing to the admission of Black men in 1968 and women in 1997 as positive steps for the school.

What Peay didn’t mention was that those evolutions weren’t exactly voluntary. By the time VMI began admitting Black students, it was the last public college in Virginia to do so, and the federal government had threatened to withdraw funding. The institute also fought against admitting women, battling the Justice Department for seven years, all the way to the Supreme Court. The school’s superintendent at the time, Josiah Bunting, called the 7-1 decision “a savage disappointment.” An attempt to evade the requirement by converting the school from a public to a private institution failed by a single vote of VMI’s board.

Donnie Hasseltine hoped this time might be different. A white Louisiana native and a classmate of Rahman’s, Hasseltine spent 22 years in the Marine Corps, retiring in 2019 to work in cybersecurity in the Bay Area. Seeing the petitions flying back and forth, he sought to find a reasonable middle ground. In an open letter posted online, Hasseltine argued that whatever the intent of VMI’s Confederate tributes, they now sent the wrong message. He suggested moving the Jackson statue and re-evaluating other monuments on post. “The question now,” he wrote, “is whether we prefer to have change dictated to us or to choose our own destiny.”

Two other alums on opposite coasts were thinking along similar lines. Mike Purdy, a Korean-American Navy veteran turned corporate lawyer in Northern Virginia, and Conor Powell, a journalist who had covered the war in Afghanistan for Fox News before settling in Los Angeles, were members of VMI’s class of 1999. For half their time at the institute, it was all-male, and like most cadets they were convinced the school would be ruined if it let in women. But when the change came, they saw the school work to make it successful. Within a few years, the controversy was forgotten; the institute not only survived with its fundamental values intact but also embraced its female graduates. In a June 2020 op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Purdy and Powell called on VMI to “lead from the front” by removing the Jackson statue.


Rahman and Hasseltine saw the op-ed, and reached out to Purdy and Powell. The four men strategized about how they might bring VMI’s decision makers to their point of view. Powell was optimistic: he had known Peay since childhood and attended VMI with Peay’s two sons. Powell knew the general as a good man, thoughtful and willing to listen.

“We write to you in the spirit of affection for the Institute, concern for its future, and a sincere desire to help VMI move forward in purposeful unity,” the foursome’s July 7 letter began. They proposed appointing a commission that would examine the campus’ Confederate symbols and recommend a way forward.

The overture was rejected. {snip}


Rahman got a Washington Post reporter, Ian Shapira, interested in the story. He urged Shapira to look beyond the hot-button issue of Confederate statues to the broader racial climate on post. On Oct. 17, a month after VMI’s board voted to approve Peay’s blueprint and keep the Jackson statue, Shapira’s article detailing “relentless racism” at VMI appeared on the Post’s front page. It recounted a litany of troubling events, including a 2018 incident in which a white upperclassman threatened a Black freshman with lynching. The upperclassman was suspended rather than expelled; the freshman was later expelled for cheating, a charge he contended was concocted as retaliation. The article also detailed the steady stream of racial slurs cadets post on Jodel, an anonymous chat app.

Reaction was immediate. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, VMI class of 1981, ordered an independent investigation into “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at VMI. The Democrat atop the state senate budget committee threatened to yank its $19 million in state funding if nothing changed.

Bill Boland, the president of VMI’s board of visitors, issued a statement insisting “systemic racism does not exist here.” The incidents described, he said, were isolated events that had been addressed. But within a week, Peay, who had been planning to retire at the end of the year, concluded the governor had lost confidence in him and resigned. A few days later, the board, fearing a broader crackdown, voted unanimously to remove the Jackson statue and set up committees to examine the school’s racial climate and Confederate monuments. Two members resigned in protest before the meeting.

To many alumni, it all smacked of “cancel culture.” A liberal mob, abetted by the news media, had manufactured phony grievances to force the school to succumb to the faddish tide of political correctness. {snip}


One group of conservative alumni has formed an unaffiliated political action committee, the Spirit of VMI, that plans to grade elected officials and run political ads. In a recent webinar for supporters, the group’s leader, a 1985 graduate named Matt Daniel, explained its raison d’être: “We were heartbreakingly disappointed that an entire community, a family, people that we know and love and respect, were all labeled as racists—not just incidental racists but systemic racists,” he said. {snip}

Rather than fight, some turned defeatist. “If the wokes intend to knuckle VMI under, perhaps there is a greater question at stake here: is VMI worth saving?” a former state GOP executive director named Shaun Kenney wrote in a blog post titled “Maybe VMI Needs to Close on Our Terms.” The alternative, conservatives fret, is a campus whose distinctive features have all been erased, smoothed into another snowflake-coddling bastion of censorious academic liberalism, where students spew social-justice jargon, invent new pronouns and accuse one another of “problematic” behavior.

They are right about one thing: the liberals have already won, and there is no going back. Stonewall Jackson’s bronze body sits in storage at New Market, waiting to be resurrected in his new home overlooking the battlefield. In April, the school replaced Peay with its first Black superintendent, Cedric Wins, class of 1985. A search is under way for VMI’s first chief diversity officer. At a public meeting in December, the board received a presentation from the state’s chief diversity officer, Janice Underwood, who laid out the difference between “equality” and “equity” and explained why statements like “I don’t see color” are not acceptable. Underwood urged the board members to “lean into discomfort” and suggested they pick up Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility.

It has come to pass as Purdy and his allies predicted. The institute rejected the opportunity to change on its own terms; now it is at the mercy of liberal outsiders, dragged kicking and screaming toward what they consider progress.

This April, on the 156th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the members of VMI’s new Commemorations and Memorials Naming and Review Committee filed into an ornate room on campus, across the vast parade ground from the barracks. It was their first in-person meeting, and the first where they would consider the fate of Confederate symbols on post.

The school’s line these days is that reports of racism on campus are overblown, but that it is embracing change and welcomes the investigation, whose findings are set to be released on June 1. The committee had drawn up an inventory of 38 pieces of Confederate iconography, from the four Civil War cannons in front of the barracks to the gravestone marking the 1997 burial of the cremated remains of Jackson’s horse. Now it was time to decide what to do with them.


S. Waite Rawls III, a 1970 VMI grad and former president of the Museum of the Confederacy, argued the displays were sending the wrong message. A first-time visitor would likely be confronted with the massive battle mural, with the result that “the first message they get is, VMI’s memorializing a bunch of damn Confederates,” he said. {snip}