Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee wore a Confederate uniform in a photo published in his 1980 college yearbook, the Tennessean newspaper reported Thursday, in the latest instance of a state leader coming under scrutiny for past actions that critics have decried as racially insensitive.
Lee (R), who won election in November, confirmed to the newspaper through his office that he wore the uniform at an “Old South” party as a student at Auburn University in Alabama.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Lee said he regretted wearing the uniform.
“Although I have never acted to intentionally hurt anyone, I have the benefit of 40 years of hindsight to see that participating was insensitive and I’ve come to regret it,” Lee said.
A Lee spokesman added that the governor has never worn blackface.
According to the Tennessean, the photo of Lee in Confederate garb — of which Lee’s office initially said it had no knowledge — appeared in a section of the yearbook dedicated to members of the Kappa Alpha Order. A profile of Lee appears on the alumni section of the fraternity’s website; the group also describes Gen. Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.”
In 2010, the fraternity’s national leadership banned the wearing of Confederate uniforms at its “Old South” parties and parades after complaints from black students. It banned the use of the term “Old South” for its events in 2016.
In a statement, Kappa Alpha Order noted that it has “consistently reviewed and revised” its policies, describing itself as “a moral compass for the modern gentleman.”
“For everyone, the collective revelation of these activities have served to educate us all on the past, punctuate the changes that have been made by our Order and in society, and direct us to continue to closely follow our values today,” Jesse S. Lyons, an assistant executive director of the fraternity, said in a statement.
Another prominent Kappa Alpha alumnus, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), recently came under criticism for taking part in fraternity parties in the 1990s at which members wore Confederate uniforms. Reeves’s office has not said whether he wore such a costume at those parties.
The unearthing of the Lee photo comes weeks after the revelation that two top officials in Virginia — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) — dressed in blackface during college, prompting a bipartisan outcry.
Both Northam and Herring have rebuffed calls to resign, and Northam has said that he plans to make racial reconciliation a centerpiece of his remaining years in office — although he canceled plans Wednesday to launch a “reconciliation tour” amid criticism from a black student leader at Virginia Union University.