Women at Citadel focus of new book ‘Local Counsel’ details controversial cases against college

Shannon Faulkner (left) and Robert Black enter Federal Court in 1994 for the case against The Citadel.

“(Shannon) Faulkner’s not the only story. You’re the story, too.”

— Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker to Charleston attorney Robert Black

By Bill Thompson bthompson@postandcourier.com

Robert Black believes some myths have a way of morphing into “reality.”

The high-profile 1990s lawsuits of Shannon Faulkner, Nancy Mellette and Navy veterans Patricia Johnson, Elizabeth Lacy and Angela Chapman against The Citadel are notable not only as advances in women’s equal protection under the law, asserts Black, but as a means of revealing the larger political, economic and social life of South Carolina, particularly what the author refers to as the “good ole boy” way of life.

“Also, after 20 years, there are still myths about the case that have been spread as truths that I wish to correct and untangle,” says Black, author of “Local Counsel: First Women at The Citadel, and Beyond” (Carolina Academic Press), both a chronicle of these cases as they moved through the courts and a pointed social critique.

“For example, many people do not realize that the U.S. government, along with the veterans, (Mellette) and Faulkner, also sued The Citadel.

The court ordered U.S. Marshals to The Citadel campus when Faulkner was there, and the Department of Justice retained jurisdiction to monitor the assimilation of women until 2002.

“This procedure is analogous to the great racial cases where the federal troops were sent to Little Rock public schools in the 1950s, to protect the newly admitted black students.”

Black served as local counsel for all of the litigation involving the veteran claimants. He retained the New York firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP as co-counsel, and later agreed to Faulkner’s Upstate attorney’s request that she join the case.

If the international media spotlight defines the measure of fame, the campaign by Faulkner to win admittance to The Citadel as the first female cadet may be among the state’s most public, says Black, rivaled only by Briggs v. Elliott, a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education.

Black says he felt a need to tell the full story of the women’s cases from the plaintiffs’ point of view, with “the realization of a strong need for Citadel-educated civilians to have access to daytime classes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) courses.

“That’s what prompted me to write this book.”

Black says the book is not an exhaustive record of legal proceedings or a broadside against a culture he deems retrograde. Instead, he calls it an account of “the animus that still lingers” as women continue to forge their place at The Citadel, an examination of the strides forward that the cases represent and a glimpse into the future.

Patricia Johnson, now procurement contracting officer at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command here, says the book’s publication is timely.

“Bob Black’s book comes just two months shy of the 20th anniversary of the filing of the veterans’ case,” she notes. “Looking back, I never regretted having what I considered an opportunity to level the playing field, if you will, regarding equal opportunity for women at The Citadel, regardless of the fact that ours was a case involving the day program for veterans.

“My hope is that after 20 years, The Citadel has evolved to embrace its female students in providing the same quality educational experience as it always has.”

“One of the most significant myths of Citadel lore is that it admitted women on a voluntary basis once the Virginia Military Institute suit was decided. That’s just not the case,” says Black. “Faulkner was ordered into The Citadel by the District Court in 1994.”

The order was affirmed by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., in 1995. The VMI decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 left The Citadel no alternative but to obey the earlier court orders, Black adds.

“Also, 20 years ago, The Citadel claimed that much would be lost with the assimilation of women in the Corps of Cadets, but only the selfishly romantic can now claim that The Citadel is not a better place today than it was prior to Faulkner.”

Black says the story is no less compelling today than two decades ago, in part because of improvements that still might be made.

“There’s the strong realization since the case ended that The Citadel could even improve to greater depths beyond the admission of women, to become a bastion of economic benefits for the state of South Carolina in the future,” says Black.

“Not just women, but civilians should be able to attend and graduate in STEM courses, which cadets largely ignore. The arrival of Boeing in South Carolina in 2010 underscores that The Citadel is perfectly placed to address an urgent need.”