After photos circulated of cadets at The Citadel wearing white pillowcases over their heads — outraging some alumni and others who felt the costumes evoked those of the Ku Klux Klan — the president of the elite public military college moved quickly to suspend and investigate those involved.

The president said in a public message that the cadets might have been singing holiday songs dressed as the “Ghosts of Christmas Past,” apparently a reference to Charles Dickens’s classic story “A Christmas Carol,” but that he found the image “offensive and disturbing.”

The Citadel Minority Alumni Association shared this photo from social media with the message: “Why would anyone think that this is ok? Will the administration at The Citadel let this go? This picture is a disgrace and a slap in the face. Who are the cadets in this picture and who is their cadet leadership? We’re watching to see how this all plays out . . .”

On Thursday afternoon, The Citadel’s president, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, posted a statement on the university website:

“A social media posting, which I find offensive and disturbing, was brought to my attention this morning. It shows an upper class cadet in front of seven cadets with pillowcases over their heads. In accordance with College policy, we immediately began suspension proceedings for those cadets known to be involved, and we are continuing to investigate this incident. Preliminary reports are cadets were singing Christmas carols as part of a “Ghosts of Christmas Past” skit. These images are not consistent with our core values of honor, duty and respect.

“We will provide more information upon completion of the investigation.”

A spokesman for the university, which has about 3,400 students, said Thursday afternoon that school officials did not have any more details about the incident.

Lamont A. Melvin, chairman of the Citadel Minority Alumni Association, could not be immediately reached Thursday afternoon, but he posted a written statement on Facebook that alleged that this wasn’t a mistake that should be swept under the rug:

“We are pleased that Lt. General Rosa and his staff have taken swift action to address the situation and look forward to the results of his investigation; however, much more needs to be done to address the culture that continues to house recurring prejudices against minority cadets.
“At the very least, there needs to be a zero tolerance policy established immediately for racially charged and racially-motivated rhetoric and activity. Furthermore, increased funding should be committed to cultural competence and diversity training for the entire Corps of Cadets and staff on a regular basis.
“This is not the first, second or third time that racially charged events have been documented to have occurred at The Citadel. It is easy to try to isolate events of this sort to a single item or incident, which would, on its face, be a disservice to minority cadets who have and are currently attending The Citadel. This issue is much bigger. It’s a cultural issue and it must be addressed and it must end now.
“When racist acts occur on campus, ALL students, black and white should feel the same degree of outrage that we do. . . . These reprehensible behaviors are not indicative of actions in which principled leaders engage. Again, the activities that led to this social media posting were not a mistake and should be dealt with severely because symbols matter.”

Race relations are particularly fraught in Charleston just months after a nine black people praying in church were killed in what police called a hate crime.

Many alumni and others still remember a 1986 incident in which five cadets dressed in KKK hoods and robes and took a burning cross to a black cadet’s room.

On social media, some brushed the Citadel costume incident off, saying cadets probably had no idea their holiday skit could be seen in such a different light.

Others — skeptical that it could have been an accident, or an innocent holiday gathering — provided tips: