The Campus Confederate Legacy We’re Not Talking About
Kappa Alpha, Washington and Lee University, and the Ku Klux Klan
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Rather than apologize, I went to work. As a historian, I knew KA wasn’t hiding its investment in the Lost Cause, an ideology that endorses the virtues of the Old South and views the Civil War as an honorable and heroic struggle for the Southern way of life, while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery and white supremacy. In its member handbook, “The Varlet,” the fraternity combines its ideal of the Southern gentleman with a dedication to a medieval chivalric fantasy of European knighthood. “Emulating chivalric ideals and genteel ethics,” “The Varlet” (2018) reads, “KA translates these timeless philosophies into the culture of American colleges and universities.” The Order considers Lee as its “Spiritual Founder,” whose “exemplary ideals, values, strong leadership, courtesy, respect for others and gentlemanly conduct” are reflected in the founding of KA.
Pro-Confederate iconography is a focus of the continuing movement to remove white-supremacist symbols from the national commemorative landscape. But as statues come down, living legacies of the Lost Cause social movement remain on our campuses. And, as Lawrence Ross and Anthony James, two scholars studying campus racism, write (in their works Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses (2016) and “Political Parties: College Social Fraternities, Manhood, and the Defense of Southern Traditionalism, 1945-1960” (2008), respectively), KA “is by no means alone with its symbolism” when it comes to “fostering a racially hostile environment,” even if historically it has “more than any other . . . encapsulated” neo-Confederate ideals. Removing the Confederacy from our campuses will require more than removing statues and renaming buildings; we must confront the organizations promoting the myth in our midst.
Caucasian in its sympathies, it excluded the African from membership.
It was never my intention to become an expert in “Confederatized” college frats. But when I upset the local KA chapter, the national organization demanded I prove my allegations. So I did. At a meeting with KA representatives — which I was required to take with my then dean — the conversation grew heated. When time was up, I hadn’t budged, and Executive Director Larry Stanton Wiese of KA proposed that I provide proof for my assertion that his organization historically supported white-supremacist causes. The dean, in an effort to quell tensions, directed me to take on Wiese’s research question. Against my own desires, I put my dissertation and teaching on the back burner and went to the archives.
According to “The Varlet,” the founders decided upon the “KA” insignia because of the immediate name recognition of Kuklos Adelphon, a prominent antebellum fraternity. Kuklos Adelphon (meaning “Circle of Brothers”) was colloquially referred to as “old Kappa Alpha” which, as noted by the historian Allen Trelease, was common knowledge to educated Southerners. Trelease also observes that it most likely served as an inspiration for the name and ritual of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan.
In her excellent biography Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor notes that racial harassment was common at Washington College under Lee’s leadership, including consistent sexual threats against Black women, students throwing rocks at freedmen’s schools, and the formation of an apparent Klan chapter. She says that, though Lee surely wanted to curtail such behavior because of federal oversight and Freedmen’s Bureau warnings, the “number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it.” Lee’s actions, Pryor argues, were exceptions to his near imperial control over the college, but consistent with his vicious racism and fear of African-American political power.
According to KAs in the following decades, Lee’s rare leniency extended to the fraternity’s “extension work,” allowing members to “leave their academic duties . . . to install chapters in other colleges.” To many early KAs, Lee was more than a figurehead. They believed he actively aided the expansion of the fraternity founded in his image, “Caucasian in its sympathies.”
KA has many notable alumni, but by far the most important is Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman (1905), the source material for The Birth of a Nation (1915). Dixon’s work helped cement the Lost Cause belief that Klansmen were the saviors of Reconstruction and served as an inspiration for the rebirth of the real 1920s KKK.
You won’t find Dixon on KA’s notable-alumni list today, but he was an active member throughout his life. He attended KA events whenever he could, served on The Kappa Alpha Journal’s advisory board, and dedicated novels to the fraternity, including special copies of The Clansman. The KA Journal, too, encouraged younger brothers to familiarize themselves with one of KA’s “most distinguished and loyal members.” On multiple occasions, the Journal ran editorials, including by Practical Founder Ammen, about Dixon’s assertion that “Kappa Alpha need not fear to claim credit for suggesting the movement that culminated in a Kuklux Empire,” which Ammen didn’t dispute.
The fraternity combines its ideal of the Southern gentleman with a dedication to a medieval chivalric fantasy of European knighthood.
KA’s Klannish identity wasn’t a secret. Chapters referred to themselves as “Klans” until at least the 1950s and, in 1920, University of Oklahoma KAs held a dance in which “members wore the white robe and hood of the Ku Klux Klan, with the crimson cross on a golden background,” KA’s symbol. In a 1907 editorial, KA reprinted an excerpt from a history of American fraternities stating that during Reconstruction, Kuklos Adelphon’s old system of fraternal “circles” spread across Southern states “till the ‘kuklos’ of the Southern gentry became the Ku Klux.” The excerpt was said to be “of peculiar interest” to the fraternity.
Upon the resurgence of the 1920s Klan, William Kavanaugh Doty, editor of The Kappa Alpha Journal, proclaimed that “The Ku Klux Klan was of contemporaneous origins and had an identity of purpose with Kappa Alpha,” and The Washington Times advertised a KA “smoker” event in Washington, D.C., about the KKK’s origins. “The archives of this fraternity, it is stated, contain much material relating to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan,” the Times wrote, “and it is believed among the older members of the fraternity that it was founded by college boys who were members of the Kappa Alpha and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternities.”
Two members of the Washington University in St. Louis chapter stated KA’s Klannish Lost Cause identity most clearly in a glowing 1915 review of Birth of a Nation, published in the KA Journal:
“The Kuklux Klan came and grew and served its purpose . . . [KA] came and grew and it embraced all the Southland . . . and still serves and cherishes those same ideals which the clan came forward to preserve. . . . The actions and the membership of the Klan are shrouded in mystery. . . . But its members wore upon their breast the circled cross of the Kappa Alpha Order. And the Klan served, by militant, warlike means, those same ideals which our Order was organized to cherish.”
Those ideals, they said, were “the manners and customs” that Lee’s “personality helped to give . . . that stamp and character which have since connected the name of Kappa Alpha with all that is best of Southern chivalry.”
In Dixon’s Klan, KAs saw themselves.
In 1920, the KA Journal echoed Mikell and the Birth of a Nation review when it proclaimed that KAs “doubtless added to the Klan’s effectiveness” in defense of “Arthurian idealism and Medieval chivalry,” and that “there can be no doubt as to the debt owed to the old order of Reconstruction days by the South not only, but by all supporters of civilization . . . and of Anglo-Saxon values.”
More recently, KAs waved the Confederate flag in defiance of racial integration during the civil-rights era, paraded through Black neighborhoods wearing Confederate uniforms, and have been frequently protested by students of color. In 2009, the University of Alabama chapter stopped its Old South parade in front of a historically Black sorority house (where the sorority was celebrating its 35th anniversary). The next year, Wiese wrote a memo issuing rules banning displays of Confederate iconography on campus. In the memo, Wiese said that “In today’s climate, the Order can ill afford to offend our host institutions and fend off significant negative national press and remain effective at our core mission, which is to aid young men in becoming better community leaders and citizens.”
But memos haven’t stopped KA’s racist incidents. It didn’t stop Florida State KAs from parading in Confederate uniforms in 2012. It didn’t stop three University of Mississippi KAs from posing armed in front of a bullet-riddled Emmett Till memorial last year. Just last week, Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts mentioned KA’s “record of racist actions” in a conversation about how he “formally disaffiliated” from the fraternity.
In early June, Sherman Neal II, an assistant football coach at Murray State University, who is African American, addressed a letter to officials in Murray, Ky., concerning the town’s statue of Robert E. Lee. After observing that its dedication in 1917 coincided with increased racial repression and a Klan resurgence in the area, Neal wrote, “I am no longer willing to accept state sponsored symbols of institutional racism in my community” and called for it to be removed like other “symbols of hatred that perpetuate injustice against minorities.”
Neal’s is an example of the position that must be taken to support safe and inclusive university environments, particularly for members of minority and marginalized communities. As in town centers, white-supremacist symbols must be removed at universities. Moving a statue at the University of Mississippi is a start, but only a start, and it must not be re-enshrined in public. At Clemson, Tillman Hall, named after the Southern “Redeemer” terrorist (“Pitchfork”) Ben Tillman, must change its name. And at Washington and Lee, the glorification of Lee on campus must end, for which students and faculty have called. The veneration of such figures on our campuses is antithetical to universities’ stated commitments to equity and inclusion.
But while removing white-supremacist symbols is an important means of upholding university values, the organizations that defend those symbols must also go. So long as organizations like KA remain on our campuses, administrators can only expect more racist incidents to occur, more memos and apologies to skirt controversy, and inevitably more bad apples to be plucked from long-rotten barrels.