At least eight Citadel cadets were suspended after photos of them appeared on social media wearing costumes resembling Ku Klux Klan hoods.
The school’s president, retired Lt. Gen. John Rosa, called the images “offensive and disturbing.” It shows an upper-class cadet in front of seven cadets wearing all-white clothing and with pillowcases over their heads. Eyeholes had been cut out and one corner of the pillowcases were drawn up to form a point.
“In accordance with College policy, we immediately began suspension proceedings for those cadets known to be involved, and we are continuing to investigate this incident,” Rosa said in a statement to the media. “Preliminary reports are cadets were singing Christmas carols as part of a ‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’ skit. These images are not consistent with our core values of honor, duty and respect.”
The episode comes amid a tumultuous year in which events in the Charleston area have become part of the national conversation about race. The April 4 shooting death of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer, and the killing of nine black people June 17 at Emanuel AME Church, both sparked outrage and raised concerns about the persistence of racism and its influence. Noted documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates Jr. visited Emanuel on Wednesday while in town for a discussion about race and healing.
“This heinous act was committed in close proximity to Mother Emanuel AME Church, and with the recent Walter Scott shooting, this adds insult to injury,” state Rep. Wendell Gilliard said. “This action by the cadets warrants nothing short of an expulsion for all those who are found to be involved in this intolerable act of hate.”
Shortly after 11:45 a.m. Thursday, a sea of cadets dressed in fatigues filed out of the McAlister Field House after a mandatory schoolwide meeting at which Rosa addressed the incident.
“I think it was stupid,” an African-American sophomore leaving the fieldhouse said of the cadets who had pillowcases over their heads. He declined to give the newspaper his name.
Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, vice president for communication and marketing, said administrators were meeting Thursday afternoon to determine the details of the suspensions just ahead of final exams. Ashworth told The Associated Press that “at this point there is no evidence that this was hazing.”
A woman posted the photos of the cadets on Facebook on Wednesday. Writing on the social media site, she explained her motives, reporting that someone she didn’t know sent her a message over the cellphone app Snapchat: “I always wanted a black girl.” The woman, who said she is half black, did not respond. She told WCSC-TV that she later checked her Snapchat account, where she found videos from the user showing Citadel cadets in white pillowcases singing Christmas carols, laughing and “dancing around.”
“Somebody in the video said, ‘It’s not what it looks like. It’s not white supremacist members,’ ” she told the station.
When the person who sent the video asked her to remove the screenshot she had shared, she complied but then changed her mind and put it back online.
“I decided to repost it because I think it is important for people to see,” she wrote. “Whether they are supposed to look like ghosts or not, we all know what they look like and they know what they look like and it’s just rude.”
This isn’t the first time cadets at The Citadel have gotten into trouble for allegedly racist behavior. In October 1986, five white cadets entered black student Kevin Nesmith’s room wearing white sheets and towels, and shouting racial insults. They left a charred paper cross in his room.
In March 2013, former Citadel cadet Jordyn Jackson told The Post and Courier that she was a victim of racial harassment at the military college almost from the moment she walked through its doors the previous fall. She was the target of racial epithets and racist notes, she said. Jackson quit the school rather than endure more insults, she had said.
Last year, Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby received hundreds of phone and email messages after he asked The Citadel to remove the Confederate Naval Jack flag from Summerall Chapel on campus. Several of the messages from people identifying themselves as Citadel alumni included racial slurs and the use of the N-word.
In June, one week after an avowed white supremacist was arrested in the deaths of nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church, The Citadel Board of Visitors voted 9-3 to remove the flag from Summerall Chapel. But under the state’s Heritage Act, passed in 2000, only legislators can determine the fate of historic markers and monuments, so the flag still hangs inside.
“We know that they think the law stops them, but I disagree. I think they ought to take it down and let the General Assembly deal with it,” said the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, vice president of the National Action Network. “Because the environment still exists for someone at The Citadel to think slavery, hatred and terrorism are OK or funny or even worth celebrating, and the flag flying doesn’t help.”
The school’s cadet corps was first integrated in 1966 by 17-year-old Charles DeLesline Foster, who endured four years of racial taunts and insults.
The Citadel’s band played “Dixie” while fans waved Confederate flags during football games at Johnson Hagood Stadium until 1992, when a race-relations committee recommended that the school halt the tradition.
Thursday’s controversy provoked rebukes on social media, including a statement from the Citadel Minority Alumni Group’s chairman, Lamont A. Melvin.
“We found the social media posting disgraceful,” Melvin said “Regardless of the spin that one may try to assign to this type of behavior, the characterization of what took place was “not a mistake” that can simply be swept under the rug. We are pleased that Lt. Gen. Rosa and his staff have taken swift action to address the situation and look forward to the results of his investigation; however, much more needs to be done to address the culture that continues to house recurring prejudices against minority cadets.”
Melvin went on to call for a zero-tolerance policy with regard to racially charged rhetoric and activity, and he said the school should spend more on cultural and diversity training for cadets and staff.
“This is not the first, second or third time that racially charged events have been documented to have occurred at The Citadel. It is easy to try to isolate events of this sort to a single item or incident, which would, on its face, be a disservice to minority cadets who have and are currently attending The Citadel. This issue is much bigger.”
The undergraduate student body at The Citadel is 8 percent black and 22 percent nonwhite overall, according to the Commission on Higher Education. There are 2,291 members of the Corps of Cadets according the college’s website.
This year, the college formed a Diversity Council, aimed at promoting a culture of inclusion and equal treatment on campus.
“We are fully invested in underrepresented minorities achieving the very most they can here at The Citadel,” Connie Book, the college’s provost and dean, told The Post and Courier earlier this month. The Citadel offers a handful of scholarships available to minority students and students with financial needs, free tutoring services, a summer academic intervention program and clubs, like the African-American Society, which offer students “social support” for life on campus.
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Citadel Cadets make their way from their barracks to lunch Thursday. Earlier in the day The Citadel’s president, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, met with the Corps of Cadets over an incident involving eight cadets, with seven of them wearing pillowcases over their heads with eye openings cut out.×