By Roland Lazenby
Lazenby is a VMI graduate, class of 1974. He lives in the Roanoke Valley.
I wonder where the Virginia Military Institute would be today without its black alumni.
When I entered the school in 1970, I was in awe of the willingness of its African-American cadets to endure a climate still tied to the traditions of the Confederacy, all entwined in a singular place where the challenges came so furiously there were no easy days.
Why would they do it? Because the system of 19th century-style military discipline offered experiences and rewards not available anywhere else. It still offers those things to cadets today.
Yet the Confederacy itself has brought almost nothing valuable to the VMI experience except for this: the large quote from Stonewall Jackson splayed across Jackson Arch, the main entrance to barracks, that declares, “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”
That quote hits you hard, from the first time you enter the place until the last time you leave. It resonated purpose in my life like no other experience I’ve ever had.
Beyond that, however, the glorification of the Confederacy and its heroes exemplifies the very worst propaganda, concocted to distort long unacknowledged lies and crimes.
Central to the issue at VMI is the Battle of New Market during the Civil War where cadets were called upon to fight. They made a charge on the battlefield that cost lives, a sacrifice that is revered and remembered each year at the school in a ceremony that many black cadets have long reviled.
The saddest of ironies? The sacrifice of the New Market cadets was made to a cause that no matter how many statues you put up, no matter how many times you play Dixie and wave the flag, you cannot cover the fact that the Southern cause advanced terrible, terrible crimes against humanity, a cause that perpetuated those crimes long after the war was lost and slavery supposedly ended.
In truth, the South never surrendered. It fought on with this astoundingly executed propaganda, an elaborate set of symbols that stood on nearly every courthouse lawn across the Confederacy, all designed to obscure centuries of wicked, murderous, rapacious crimes against humanity.
Yes, I have heard the apologists proclaim heritage, not hate. That’s only more delusion. The heritage is hate, no matter how much you try to sweeten it.
The more I have read and studied and researched the details of our history after the Civil War, the history you don’t learn in public or private school, the more nauseated I am by it all.
And the more thankful I become each day for the sacrifice of the many black cadets for their willingness to endure and, yes, to love VMI. Their effort has given VMI a future today. Their efforts and sacrifices in these 53 years since VMI first integrated have provided black graduates the thing most vital to VMI’s survival: Stewardship.
Fortunately, VMI’s greatest figure is Gen. George C. Marshall, not only a great military figure but a lion of peace, the author of the Marshall Plan to revive Europe after the destruction of World War II. It also has Jonathan Daniels, a white cadet who became a minister and was murdered while doing Civil Rights work in the Deep South in the 1960s.
The most precious example, however, has been provided by so many black alumni from the school who have lived lives of achievement and sacrifice, such as my own dear brother rat, Gene Williams, who has founded and administered the College Orientation Workshop on VMI’s campus for decades now, providing a profound summer educational experience for thousands of minority males who have gone on to their own successes.
Williams has raised every penny for the program from private funds and spent countless hours of his own volunteer time to be its driving force.
Sadly, VMI itself has too often failed to get out and lead on issues of race, often choosing instead to fight rear guard battles to preserve its Civil War traditions (and sometimes its attitudes).
VMI spent millions of dollars fighting a battle against admitting women in the 1990s, a battle it thankfully lost, which protected VMI graduates from being labeled as anti-female in a world where the military services increasingly rely on women. Again, VMI owes a tremendous debt to the young women willing to make their way through a system that still too often resorts to old attitudes.
This is the time for more change, no matter how fraught with difficulty. VMI should muster the resolve that Stonewall encouraged. It should get out front and lead on this vital issue of ridding America of the age-old racial attitudes that have undermined the country for far too long. That begins with the Confederate symbols that needlessly characterize the place. Put them away for good.
The old, common phrase is, “Do or die.”
Now it’s our reality.
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