Wait: Why Did It Take A Congressional Commission To Point Out That A KKK Plaque Wasn’t Appropriate At West Point?

[NOTICE: This post was materially wrong, based as it was on bad and incomplete information. An UPDATE is here]

This does not give me great faith in the military’s powers of observation and urgency.

That bronze panel above is one of three mounted at the entrance of Bartlett Hall Science Center U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. It’s unclear how long it has been there (I bet Woodrow Wilson had something to do with it, KKK fanboy that he was) but it wasn’t exactly hidden from view for the decades cadets passed under it. Yes somehow, it wasn’t until the report released by a congressional panel this week pointed out the damn thing that West Point was moved to do something.

The panel, called the Naming Commission, was created by Congress to provide recommendations for the removal or renaming of Defense Department places, decorations and things that commemorate the Confederacy, including those that appear at the military academies. The commission flagged the KKK plaque but said that recommending the its removal fell outside of its scope because the Ku Klux Klan, though founded by former Confederate soldiers, doesn’t technically relate to the Civil War, but rather to Southern resistance to post-war Reconstruction. That still doesn’t explain why the plaque was still up at West Point. One can argue about the effort to erase Confederacy figures from the nation’s honors and memorials (although the military has the strongest argument for doing so: the other two bronze plaques honor Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, who fought against the U.S. military), but the Klan is irredeemable, and has been an unambiguous symbol of hate, racism and evil at least since the 1950s. Finding out that a Klan plaque was on display all this time at West Point is like discovering that St. Paul’s Cathedral had a statue of Satan hanging around for centuries without anyone objecting.

A spokeswoman for West Point emailed the Times, “As a values-based institution, we are fully committed to creating a climate where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”

They’re just not inclined to take down a Ku Klux Klan commemoration until someone else points it out.

25 thoughts on “Wait: Why Did It Take A Congressional Commission To Point Out That A KKK Plaque Wasn’t Appropriate At West Point?

  1. Having spent years walking past and taking classes Bartlett Hall in the late 90s, something about today’s breathless news rang false to me today. Sure enough, the stories I’ve seen are technically true and–as the fact checking websites so love to invoke–lacking context. There is no doubt the KKK figure exists, but as a small portion in one of three 11′ x 5′ triptych panels in a piece of art dedicated in 1965 to depict “historical incidents or persons.”

    I welcome principled debate about the nation’s premier leadership institution (personal biased acknowledged) displaying 50+ year old art that many might find upsetting. However, the ham-fisted ideologues and their media allies deliberately making this appear to be a stand alone shrine to the KKK should spare us their outrage.

    P.S. I love your blog and have been a fan and almost daily reader since the Scoreboard days.

    • I think I agree with Jack. Lee and Stuart, while controversial, are graduates that could deserve honors.

      The KKK? I can think of no good reason for giving the group an honor, much less not removing it upon discovery. Stuart and Lee served in the US military before resigning. The KKK, even if it were populated with some West Point graduates (I don’t know if it was), it was not a part of the US military and served no legitimate national interest.


      • The official West Point public affairs social media post that I tried to embed in my first post, but failed, includes detailed photos of the entire triptych and its relevant parts. Reasonable people can, and should, debate whether this piece ‘honors’ the KKK or includes it because of historical relevancy.

        I should have been more clear in the original post which wasn’t so much about the existence of the plaque, but really about the manner in which the news broke. Those first stories seem almost designed to preclude reasonable people from having that debate.

        • JPC: what do you mean by historical relevancy?

          We are talking about a military academy. Military training could have relevance, even if is about the Prussian army (much like the way the Supreme Court include Mohamed and Moses in a relief depicting lawgivers throughout history).

          What is the historical relevancy of the KKK that distinguishes it from the Black Panthers, the SLA, John Brown, or Nat Turner, besides the KKK’s relative longevity?


  2. “Bartlett Hall Science Center”

    Yes, because when I think of “science” I think “a thug with his face completely covered by a hood, holding some kind of shotgun, shouting about how his deity wants him to crush all other ethnic groups.” What’s that fluffy stuff behind him, smoke from a building he set on fire?

    Leaving aside the question of who allowed the plaque to be put up (different times, fine), who in the Ku Klux Klan requested a plaque be put up for them on a science building? Or, for that matter, at any institution of higher learning? I’m not assuming they all are or were stupid; I just didn’t get the impression they valued intellectualism all that much. It just seems kind of random, just as it would be if the plaque were on a dance studio. At least the Nazis and the Soviets pretended to value science–while automatically rejecting ideas associated with Jewish scientists or with capitalists, respectively, because people the party hates can’t possibly be correct about anything.

    I am curious as to how apparently nobody at the academy questioned why they kept it around, or they did but it was decided to just leave it. Without knowing why it was put there in the first place, I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t take it down sometime in the past… let’s say, four decades?

    …What’s on the other two plaques?

    • One more try at a link, this time to the West Point library’s official description:


      Among a lot of military figures, the work titled “United States of America History Panels” also includes the Mayflower, Father Louis Hennepin, the 13 original colonies, Eli Whitney, flora and fauna, John Fitch, the Erie Canal, John James Audobon, and a carpetbagger.

      I don’t fault the public for hearing West Point, KKK, and decades old plaque and filling in their own blanks about what’s going on. I do fault the opinion-making class for appearing to leave those blanks open on purpose.

      • Thanks, the context helps! I wish I could see what other historical groups are represented. That would make it easier to tell if the history panels are supposed to celebrate beneficial historical entities, or just make note of impactful people, groups, and events regardless of whether or not they were positive, in the vein of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

        • Agreed. The linked document has some fuzzy black and white photos with callouts for each element.

          I suspect, or maybe hope is more accurate, that future reporting will include better photos of the entire piece.

          • Now that I expand the document and read through it, I’m no longer surprised that the sculpture has remained. Instead I’m surprised anyone’s complaining about it. It does celebrate some events, but other parts are definitely in “We Didn’t Start the Fire” territory. For example, 1-41 “Salem witchcraft period”, 2-7 “Burr-Hamilton Duel”, 3-5 “slaughter of the buffalo”, 3-48 “bootlegger”, and probably others I missed. These events are definitely in the “so these things happened… yeah…” category. They’re impactful enough that we should remember and learn from them, but nobody in their right mind would think they were there because they were being honored.

            I somehow doubt that the sculpture would include George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington if its purpose were racist, not to mention Uncle Tom’s Cabin and various other antislavery milestones.

            Let’s see how long it takes the complainers to get taken apart. I wonder how many of the items on the list they ever learned about.

          • It’s a terrific help, and great context. Are you the only one who’s explicated this? Anyway, I have an answer to the question in the title now, and I’ll post on that tomorrow. So this really is just historical airbrushing, and no better than pulling down statues.

            Great work, JPC.

      • Yes, that is very helpful.

        The three items contain more than 120 references, including John Brown.

        The KKK description states (paraphrased): a group of white people who hid their criminal activity with a mask.

        I suspect that many people who object to this depiction would also complain that we try to hide “true history.”


  3. Thank you to the commentator who pointed out that the panel is but part of a larger opus depicting American history. History of course has to its lights and shadow, it’s saints and sinners, it’s heroes and antiheroes. To disregard shadows, sinners, and antiheroes is to disregard history.

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