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Naming Commission says removal of KKK plaque at West Point is not under scope of investigation

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U.S. Military Academy Public Affairs Office
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USMA Public Affairs

Outside a West Point building where cadets take science classes hang three large, bronze, sculpted panels. The display is called “History of the United States.” Each panel contains 50 depictions, like the Mayflower, Paul Revere and Susan B. Anthony.

One shows a hooded person carrying a rifle, chest out, with flames in the background. The inscription says “Ku Klux Klan.”

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Naming Commission

But the commission charged with reviewing defense department property that commemorates the Confederacy said the KKK picture is outside the scope of its investigation. Vice Chair Ty Seidule, a history professor, said the commission stopped short of recommending it come down.

“While the KKK was often created by ex-confederates, it was not directly commemorating the Confederacy,” Seidule said. “Having said that, we thought it was wrong. And we then wanted to make sure that we highlighted it in our report.”

The Defense Department is moving forward with plans to eliminate Confederate names from bases and other things in the military. The Naming Commision has identified nine bases and more than 1,100 items like streets, buildings, and monuments that will be renamed or removed.

But it's not clear whether that will include the unusual display at West Point of the bronze depiction of the Ku Klux Klan.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has endorsed the commission’s official recommendations and said he plans to implement them by 2024, but a Pentagon spokesman said he had no information on whether that includes removing the KKK image.

Captain Gabe Royal, a West Point graduate, published research about confederate memorials at the academy two years ago. He said he didn’t know about the KKK symbol until he read about it in the Naming Commission’s report. Speaking for himself and not the Army, Royal said he doesn’t think the image should be removed because to him, it doesn’t glorify white supremacy.

“History matters,” Royal said. “Out of context, it sounds bad: ‘Oh, this is a depiction of KKK members in an institution that produces officers.’ That sounds awful. But when you actually start to unpack it, and unpeel the layers of why it was commissioned and how it got up there, I think it makes a little more sense. It’s a little more nuanced than that.”

That context is that the KKK image is among 150 scenes on the panels, which were erected in 1965. According to a West Point guide, the display was intended to represent historical events — not memorialize them. The artist's notes at the time described the KKK as "an organization of white people who hid their criminal activity behind a mask and sheet."

For some, that context is irrelevant.

“No young military cadet at West Point should have to go study for exams, and look up and see a bronze plaque honoring the Ku Klux Klan,” said Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents the New York district in the Hudson Valley where West Point is located.

“It's absolutely outrageous,” Maloney said. “It should be taken down yesterday, by whatever means necessary.”

There's less disagreement about another relic at West Point with an undeniable connection to the Confederacy: a large portrait of General Robert E. Lee that hangs in the library. Royal said he became desensitized to it over time.

“You see it, you notice it, and as a person of color, you're like, ‘I don't love that,’" Royal said about the image of Lee in a gray Confederate uniform. “But it's also such an ingrained part of West Point that it's almost like, ‘Okay, well, this is normal.’”

Lee served four years as Superintendent at West Point before he joined the Confederacy. Still, Congressman Maloney said the academy can teach cadets Civil War history without honoring him.

“Obviously there's a place for Robert E. Lee as a historic figure who was associated with West Point,” Maloney said. “But you need to be crystal clear that this is someone who may have started out okay but who went in a very, very tragic direction, who did great violence, and nearly undid the American democracy over an issue as pernicious as slavery.”

A West Point spokesperson said the commission's recommendations are under review but wouldn't say more about the Lee portrait or the KKK symbol.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.