However, in this time of strife, Trump should be wary of using the U.S. Military Academy to further his political fortunes. One president tried that very strategy in the past. It didn’t work.
In May 1971, President Richard M. Nixon visited the academy during a time of war and racial strife in the Army and the country. In his speech, he challenged the Class of 1971 to “lead a moral rebirth of the Army.”
Afterward, Maj. Gen. William Knowlton, the academy’s superintendent, showed Nixon the Battle Monument, a soaring granite column dedicated to the regular Army officers and soldiers who died during “the War of the Rebellion.” In 1897, the U.S. Military Academy dedicated the monument to those who “freed a race and welded a nation.”
As the superintendent explained the monument to Nixon, the president remarked: “Oh, that’s fine, general. Where’s the one for the Confederate Army?”
“Well, sir,” Knowlton replied, “we don’t have one up here.”
“Oh, general!” Nixon exclaimed. “I’ve been down to Alabama and I got a wonderful reception down there, and this is a time of healing. … You’ve got to get a monument up here to those Confederate dead.”
This remark exposed the problem with Nixon’s concept of healing — he meant bringing white people together at the expense of black people. He also had an ulterior political motive. A Confederate monument at the U.S. Military Academy would further his “Southern strategy,” by providing a powerful symbolic statement that would appeal to all white people who saw racial equality as a political threat.
Nixon’s idea to honor Confederates was problematic on several levels. A Confederate monument would glorify West Pointers who committed treason to preserve slavery. It would celebrate the Confederates’ purpose — white supremacy. Finally, a memorial would tell African Americans that they were second-class citizens in their own country.
Back at the White House, Nixon followed up with several letters to Knowlton demanding a big Confederate monument dedicated in time for the Republican Convention in summer 1972.
Knowlton was worried. He knew a Confederate monument would devastate his successful efforts to recruit black cadets. A shrewd leader, Knowlton asked Percy Squire, the senior black cadet, for his thoughts on the monument. Rather than just give an answer, Squire began the most successful protest movement in the history of the U.S. Military Academy.
After a meeting with all African American cadets, Squire wrote a “militant manifesto” listing 13 demands. The manifesto described how as black men they entered the U.S. Military Academy with “awe and expectation” to improve the quality of leadership for all black soldiers. Instead, they found “blatant racism.”
Institutional racism at the academy had a long history. The first black cadets in the 20th century were “silenced.” No cadets would talk to them outside of official duties. The barracks remained segregated until 1954. Even after the end of segregation, no U.S. Military Academy class had more than a handful of black cadets.
After the academy started a minority admissions program, 47 black cadets arrived in the summer of 1969. As one cadet noted before they arrived, “It wasn’t possible to have a black identity. There just weren’t enough of us.” Nixon’s cynical Confederate monument idea combined with more than 100 black cadets created what Knowlton called “nuclear fission.”
After every black cadet signed the manifesto, Squire persuaded 22 of the 23 black officers at the U.S. Military Academy to sign it. When the superintendent received the document, he gave the cadets everything they asked for. One demand was for social programs designed for black cadets. The cadets’ social life at the isolated, all-male school was problematic. One young black woman described her visit to the academy with horror: “We spent the whole evening square dancing!” The cadets forced the academy to sponsor soul-themed dances.
The cadets felt that the U.S. Military Academy had forced them “to abandon black culture.” Immediately, the academy allowed cadets to grow Afros.
Deploying their newfound power, the cadets persuaded the superintendent to invite controversial figures to speak that the academy had previously denied. Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.) had visited a dozen bases addressing systemic racism in the military. Now he came to the U.S. Military Academy with the blessing of its leadership. The cadets even brought Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam to speak.
With victories on all fronts, the cadets’ most important demand was to stop the Confederate monument. More significant was how they framed the argument. The cadets did not mention the issue of slavery. They knew that white Army officers would understand the argument of treason more readily. As a journalist at Ebony magazine described the cadets, “Those were some savvy brothers.”
The African American cadets argued that West Pointers who fought for the Confederacy “abrogated their oath” to the Constitution. What if, as officers, the president called on them to quash a violent protest by black citizens?
If African American officers deserted their Army units to accept positions of leadership among “rebelling Blacks” in a hypothetical rebellion, would the U.S. Military Academy put up a monument to them? Or would they be punished as traitors? The Confederates, argued the cadets, committed treason, violating the Constitution by “levying war against the United States.” They deserved censure, not recognition.
Thanking Squire, Knowlton called the White House to inform the administration that a Confederate monument would hurt minority recruiting efforts and cause a publicity nightmare.
The White House dropped the issue immediately. Squire and the other African American cadets defeated the president of the United States. Thanks to black cadet activism, there is no huge Confederate memorial staining West Point.
In 2015, another group of black activists, led by cadet Michael Barlow, convinced the U.S. Military Academy to name its newest barracks after Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first black cadet to graduate from West Point in the 20th century and the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II fame. A far more appropriate honor than the barracks just to the east, named for Robert E. Lee in 1970. After all, Lee renounced his oath and his troops killed U.S. soldiers.
Black activism changed the U.S. Military Academy in 1971, and it is changing America in 2020. When Trump comes to the academy, he will think about his photo op among the cadets, and how such an image might burnish his credentials as a law-and-order president who spent lavishly on the military. But we should remember how Percy Squire and his fellow cadets defeated a president.
Little did Nixon realize that African American West Pointers did indeed lead a “moral rebirth of the Army.” And it’s America’s activists who led protests this month that will change this country for the better today.