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Confederate names are being removed from bases, but is a KKK image at West Point 'more nuanced'?

Three bronze panels were mounted on a West Point classroom building in 1965 to display key events in American History. One of the images depicts a hooded Ku Klux Klan member.
Elizabeth V. Woodruff
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U.S. Military Academy
Three bronze panels were mounted on a West Point classroom building in 1965 to display key events in American History. One of the images depicts a hooded Ku Klux Klan member.

The Defense Department is planning to eliminate Confederate names from bases and more than 1100 other things in the military. But it's not clear whether that will include an unusual display at West Point - a bronze depiction of a Ku Klux Klan member.

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.”

But the commission charged with reviewing Defense Department property that commemorates the Confederacy says the KKK picture is outside the scope of its investigation. While the commission noted the image in its report, it stopped short of recommending that the depiction come down.

“While the KKK was often created by ex-Confederates, it was not directly commemorating the Confederacy,” said Vice Chair Ty Seidule, a retired brigadier general and professor emeritus of history at West Point. “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 to be renamed or removed.

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."
The Naming Commission
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The KKK figure is one of 150 images on the bronze panels. In 1965, when the panels were installed, the artist's notes referred to the Ku Klux Klan as "an organization of white people who hid their criminal activity behind a mask and sheet."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has endorsed the commission’s official recommendations and announced 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, wrote 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 says the commission's recommendations are under review but wouldn't say more about the Lee portrait or the KKK symbol.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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