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Cadets: Racial Incident Not Representative of The Citadel

October 31, 1986

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ Like a scene from ″The Lords of Discipline,″ five white Citadel cadets dressed in sheets and towels entered the room of a black cadet, shouted obscenities and left a burned paper cross behind.

While last week’s incident sent shock waves through the storied campus, both black and white cadets agree the hazing doesn’t reflect the racial atmosphere at the state military college.

″I don’t think there are any tensions,″ said Craig Burgess, a 21-year-old senior from Lake City, S.C., and one of 126 blacks in the college’s 1,960- member corps of cadets.

″A lot of the corps is hostile to the press because they think everything is being overdrawn,″ he said.

The five unidentified white cadets, charged with ″conduct discreditable,″ have been brought before a disciplinary board and could be expelled. College president Maj. Gen. James Grimsley Jr. is expected to announce a punishment Friday. He has also called for a general study of campus race relations.

The incident occurred in a barracks similar to that in which novelist Pat Conroy spent his years at the school in the 1960s, about the time the first blacks enrolled.

Conroy drew heavily on his experience in ″The Lords of Discipline,″ an unflattering novel about life in a Southern military school which centers around the hazing of a black cadet. It was later made into a movie.

″You can’t compare then to now,″ said Terry Adams, a 19-year-old black junior from Washington, D.C. ″The times aren’t even comparable. The ’60s were a turbulent time as far as civil rights. This is 1986.″

Indeed, since Conroy’s time, hazing and physical abuse that were once part of life for all first-year cadets at The Citadel have been outlawed.

The Citadel, with its gleaming white barracks studded with turrets and flags, has a rich tradition. In January 1861, its cadets fired on the Star of the West, a steamer sent by the federal government to relieve Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. A bombardment on the fort three months later began the Civil War.

Last week’s incident occurred in the room of black cadet Kevin Nesmith, who slept through the incident. His brother, Alonzo, is the first black to serve on the college’s governing board, the Board of Visitors.

Grimsley said cadets were aware Nesmith’s brother was on the board but didn’t know if that influenced the incident. Both brothers have declined to talk to the press.

The Afro-American Society, which claims 75 black cadets as members, believes the five whites should be expelled, says group president Kenny Gordon, 20, of Willingboro, N.J.

″We want people to know we don’t agree with it and if they’re calling it a joke, then we don’t agree with those types of jokes,″ Gordon said.

But he said the incident is an isolated event and race relations are no different on campus from anywhere else. He said he has seen instances of racial insensitivity on campus but ″none that I would go into, none of them major.″

There have been two other racial incidents on campus this year. In one, a white cadet told a racial joke in front of a black. In the other, a black cadet became nervous when another cadet remarked that he resembled the black in ″The Lords of Discipline.″ Cadet officers instructed the corps not to make any similar comments about the student.

Phil Martin, a 21-year-old white senior from Lexington, S.C., feels race relations are probably better at The Citadel than other colleges because cadets have to work side-by-side in an military atmosphere.

″We have to work together and live together in a small environment. As I made the transition from high school to college, I was impressed as to how well black and white upperclassmen worked together,″ said Martin, editor of the campus newspaper ″The Brigadier.″

Grimsley, a 1942 Citadel graduate who served 33 years of active duty in the Army, has made it clear he won’t stand for future incidents on campus.

He urged the corps this week to work together to ease any tensions that may exist and said he would be available to any cadet to discuss the incident.

Because of the school’s history and the colorful fiction of ″The Lords of Disicpline,″ cadet Adams believes, the college is getting undue publicity.

″The only reason we’re receiving so much publicity is that we’re a military college,″ he said. ″If this happened at Furman, Converse or any other college in South Carolina, it would be given one day’s attention and that would be it.″

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