When Morris Robinson attended The Citadel, he was noted for at least two things: his performance on the football field and his performances of “O Holy Night” at Summerall Chapel.
“Every week, the gospel choir would go into that chapel and sing,” Robinson said. “We’d hold hands, have a prayer and sing gospel music all night. Everyone had a story to tell, a testimony, a song to sing and something to bring to the table.
“We’d pray together as brothers — white, black, Asian, whomever. We were all there.”
Hanging over that scene was the Confederate Naval Jack, a flag similar to the Confederate battle flag that was removed from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia this year after the killing of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The Naval Jack still hangs in Summerall Chapel on The Citadel’s campus, despite a vote by the school’s Board of Visitors a week after the shootings to remove it.
“It was hanging there front and center,” said Robinson, “staring me right in the face. Something that divisive doesn’t need to be in a place of worship.”
That’s why Robinson, a world-renowned opera singer and 1991 Citadel graduate, has lent his support to the “Take It Down Now Campaign,” a movement started by Citadel alumni to bring the flag down.
The campaign’s Facebook page has garnered more than 700 likes in the last two weeks, including support from celebrities such as actress Angela Bassett and actor Courtney B. Vance.
Many former Citadel athletes also have voiced support for the campaign, which describes itself as “a broad-based public effort to remove the Confederate Naval Jack Flag from Summerall Chapel on the campus of The Citadel.”
Former Citadel football player Ronald Galvin, Class of 1990, is one of the organizers of the campaign. He said the events at Emanuel AME — where Dylann Roof, who posted photos of himself with the Confederate flag and vowed to start a “race war,” is accused of killing nine people on June 17 — and around the nation galvanized many Citadel alumni to take action.
“This is not an issue that’s new to us,” said Galvin, a senior advisor at the Center for Community Change in Washington. “It’s something that’s been on our minds and in our consciousness for a long time. What created the momentum is the moral contradiction we saw in what happened at Emanuel AME, where a white supremacist wrapped in the Confederate flag killed nine African-Americans in a church, and the same flag hangs in a church at The Citadel. There’s a lot of pain and concern around that.”
Although the Board of Visitors voted 9-3 to remove the flag, The Citadel cannot lawfully remove it because of the Heritage Act. That law was passed in 2000, and gives state legislators the power to determine the fate of historic markers and monuments.
It was only after a wrenching debate that legislators approved the removal of the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds in response to the Emanuel AME shooting.
Despite removal of the Confederate flag in Columbia, legislators have refused to take action on other controversial symbols.
In Greenwood, a group of military veterans is suing the state of South Carolina, saying the Heritage Act is unconstitutional. The suit stems from efforts to remove segregation-era memorial plaques in Greenwood that identified fallen soliders as “white” and “colored.”
In a letter to Speaker of the House Jay Lucas in June, Citadel officials asked the General Assembly to amend the Heritage Act to allow the school to lawfully remove the Naval Jack. Lucas responded in a letter to the board that “the General Assembly has completed its consideration of the issue and the matter is considered settled,” according to minutes of the Board of Visitors’ meeting last July.
Others don’t consider the matter settled.
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, has asked the state Attorney General to issue an opinion on whether it’s constitutional for the Heritage Act to require a two-thirds vote from the General Assembly to make changes to monuments and memorials on government-owned property.
Jackson also plans to pre-file a bill in December that would loosen restrictions of the Heritage Act.
The General Assembly should be the first target of Citadel alumni determined to bring down the Naval Jack, said Jamie Jenkins, a former Citadel basketball player and member of the steering committee of The Citadel Minority Alumni Association.
“This is a legislative issue,” Jenkins said. “The Board of Visitors has voted to take the flag down. The Speaker of the House is the one that we need to be focused on, that whole legislative process.”
The CMAA is not organizing the Take It Down Campaign, but many of its members support the movement, Jenkins said.
“The leadership of The Citadel is fully supportive of bringing that flag down,” Jenkins said. “But the people behind this movement are asking that The Citadel do more. They are trying to bring a lot of attention to the issue, and here recently it is picking up some steam.”
A Citadel spokesman said school president Lt. Gen. John Rosa met recently with the Minority Alumni Association, and dialogue continues with members of the General Assembly, which goes back in session in January.
In a letter to Speaker Lucas, organizers of the “Take It Down Now Campaign” said, “You must know that we refuse to stand idly by while you, other legislators, and supporters of the flag continue to hide behind the Heritage Act, using it as justification to keep the flag and what it represents in place. It is our contention that the Heritage Act is an unjust law — one that we are proposing to challenge with our allies around the state.”
Galvin and other supporters of the “Take It Down Now Campaign” say Citadel officials should be doing more to bring the flag down, including potentially pulling support for the 2016 Medal of Honor Bowl at Johnson Hagood Stadium. The removal of the Confederate flag in Columbia ended the NCAA’s ban on pre-determined postseason events in South Carolina. That opened the door for the NCAA to sanction the Medal of Honor Bowl, formerly an all-star game, as an official postseason bowl game. That approval is expected in the spring.
“We think that if the school is really interested in healing, they would take a more public stance to call for the flag to come down,” Galvin said. “We would suggest that they pull support for the Medal of Honor Bowl until that happens.”
Robinson, a lineman on The Citadel team that won at South Carolina in 1990, played in an era when the school band still played “Dixie” at football games, and fans waved Confederate flags at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Those practices were not ended until 1992, and made football players, black and white, feel “almost ostracized” from the Corps of Cadets, Robinson said.
“When we scored a touchdown and saw that flag waving in the stands,” he said, “the only guys we were celebrating with were the guys on the field with us. What was going on in the stands, we didn’t belong to that. We belonged to the guys on the field, and we loved each other.”
On the bus ride back from the Bulldogs’ 38-35 upset of USC in 1990, Robinson remembers a teammate saying, “When we scored that last touchdown, that was the only time I was happy to hear ‘Dixie’ playing in the stands. I was almost happy to hear it ... but naw.”
Players on the bus laughed.
Said Robinson, “When they stopped playing ‘Dixie’ and waving the Confederate flag, those were major steps forward for The Citadel. Removing the Confederate Naval Jack from Summerall Chapel is the next step.
“It belongs somewhere, in a library or a museum with a glass case around it. It doesn’t belong in a house of worship.”