The story of the post-World War II Citadel is a story of change. In one sixteen year stretch, for example, four different men served as the school’s president. I mention this of course not to jinx Lieutenant General Rosa. He has already outlasted one president who resigned before he was even formally inaugurated. This high turnover rate though serves as both a sign and a symptom of the remarkable changes that have occurred here in the decades following the Second World War. Granted, change isn’t a word that many people associate with The Citadel and certain changes in the institution have come hard with work remaining to be done. Part of this might have to do with the school’s regional setting. In 1941, Gaffney native W.J. Cash predicted correctly that “in the coming days and probably soon, [the South] is likely to have to prove its capacity for adjustment far beyond what has been true in the past.” The Citadel found its “capacity for adjustment” sorely tested as well with school officials, cadets, and alumni struggling to keep up with a nation and region undergoing significant cultural, political, and social change. Public and private debates over certain Citadel traditions arose frequently as some customs were discarded and others remained. Still others faded away only to be replaced by new traditions. The term “new tradition” may seem like an oxymoron, but it does capture Citadel folks’ tendency to bestow time-honored status on a practice that might very well have originated last week.
Few traditions at The Citadel have undergone more scrutiny or aroused more interest than the fourth class system. Over the years, the fourth class system has been a source of pride and consternation to cadets, alumni and administrators, and although the system changed from year to year and in some cases semester to semester, Citadel personnel have been quick to protect the system’s presumably “time honored” traditions from “outside” tampering. In actuality, most of the system’s traditions are best viewed as a series of modern reactions to contemporary developments.
During World War II as cadet enrollment dropped drastically, The Citadel officially suspended the fourth class system for four years, reinstating a modified set of rules and regulations in 1947. The late 1950s and 1960s witnessed gradual, but dramatic changes within the fourth class system as informal changes, originating within the barracks, evolved into officially sanctioned aspects of knob year. 1967 graduate Pat Conroy remembers Citadel President General Mark Clark boasting “that the school would have the toughest plebe system in the world,” adding “I personally attest that he succeeded admirably.” Conroy describes the plebe system he endured as “mind-numbing, savage, unrelenting, and base.” Many people dismiss the novelist’s accounts as literary hyperbole, and Conroy himself accepts the skepticism of older graduates who saw no similarities between their freshman year and the one he describes. He explains, however, that “over a period of time, the system had evolved into the extreme form of mob violence my classmates and I experienced.” Alumni from earlier eras concede that physical violence formed a part of their fourth class system, but they characterize these acts as more rambunctious than malicious. When asked to compare his freshmen experience to the experiences of later cadets, a 1938 graduate commented that at some point “the whole place down there got mean.”
Indeed, in the post-World War II years, what had started out as a rigorous yet controlled method of military instruction transformed into a grueling test of a cadet’s presumed toughness. The practice of demanding freshmen do “on the spot” push-ups originated towards the end of the 1950s, and quickly became one of the most zealously guarded corps wide “traditions.” The beginning of the 1960s saw the introduction of the “knob” haircut whereby each new cadet had his head shaved practically to the scalp. Such practices were unfamiliar to earlier generations of alumni and many remember how shocked they were the first time they saw cadets sporting this new knob look. News of physical hazing in the mess hall and barracks increased during the 1960s and 1970s, vexing school officials and prompting three internal reviews of the system in an 11-year span. Each report reinforced the other, finding that many of these traditions were not traditions at all, but merely “experiences of the preceding one or two years” that had, according to one Commandant of Cadets, rendered plebe year “less a training program than an extended hazing session.” Although these studies had been conducted by Citadel alumni and other school officials, they were denounced by many as the work of “outsiders” and quickly dismissed.
Many of these changes within the fourth class system reflected either the corps’ acceptance of or resistance to larger trends within American society. The 1960s witnessed the most dramatic modifications and can be seen as a unique reaction to the broader student protests occurring outside The Citadel’s gates. Knob haircuts, for example, stood in direct contrast to the longer, shaggier hairstyles adopted by young men at other colleges and universities. At the same time, however, other elements of the 1960s student movement made their way past Lesesne Gate and mixed with aspects of the southern military tradition to encourage cadets to mount vocal challenges to the college’s rules and regulations.
In the mid-1960s, to protest what they saw as nitpicky, Mickey Mouse regulations, certain unknown members of the corps painted an image of the famous rodent on the water tower overlooking the campus. As new freshmen shed their hair, upperclassmen looked to shed their dress grays, lobbying school officials to change the off-campus uniform requirements, increase the number and length of cadet furloughs, and allow students to keep TVs and coffee makers in the barracks. School administrators responded, increasing cadets’ leave time and in 1970 authorizing the wearing of a “blazer uniform” for Juniors and Seniors. Several years later, Seniors would be allowed to wear civilian coats and ties while on weekend leave.
In what might also be considered another Citadel tradition, such changes prompted some alumni to complain that their alma mater had grown “soft,” and they began preparing themselves for the barracks walls to crumble and the corps to disband. Indeed, by the 1980s, one cadet had grown so tired of reading the school’s numerous epitaphs that he advised his colleagues, “the next time you’re afraid The Citadel is about to crumble to the ground because of too many changes, go talk to an ‘old timer’ . . . you will probably learn that making changes to Citadel ‘traditions’ is not only inevitable, it is usually for the best.” Two weeks prior to the 1981 commencement ceremonies, a junior congratulated graduating seniors for being that much closer to the day when they could huff “‘Back when I was in the Corps’ . . . or ‘The Corps has gone to _____!!’ and will start writing ‘Letters to the Editor’ about how proud [they were] to wear dress grays in the ninety degree Charleston weather.”
Changes to uniforms and haircuts, of course, represent just two aspects of how The Citadel changed in the post-World War II era, and the 1960s marked yet another milestone in the school’s history when Charles Foster enrolled as the college’s first African American cadet. With the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court hoped to do more than integrate public schools. Their larger purpose was to break down the Jim Crow mindset, establishing a foundation whereby a new generation of white and black Americans might come to know one another as classmates, peers and friends. The Citadel offered a unique environment in which to test this theory as a handful of cadets, both black and white, worked together to change their institution for the better.
Like many white Southerners at the time, several Citadel officials and much of the corps initially opposed the Brown decision. The school’s president at the time, General Mark Clark, denounced the Supreme Court’s effort to “force indiscriminate racial integration upon the South,” and much of the corps held similar views. It wasn’t until 1966, the year after Clark retired, that Charles Foster entered Padgett-Thomas barracks and reported to his G Company First Sergeant. Looking back on that day, Foster’s brother remembers an undercurrent of resentment on the campus, noting “People didn’t want him there, but they treated him as any other plebe coming into the system.” Cadet officers and the Assistant Commandant of Cadets watched over Foster, but they seldom intervened. As one of his classmates recalls, “for the entire freshmen year, Charlie was one of us and he caught it just the same as we did.”
In 1967, Joseph Shine followed Foster as the school’s second African American cadet and two years later, six more black men joined the corps. The number of black cadets increased over the next few years, but not by much. As with all cadets their experiences differed, and in their own way, each young man left his mark on the school. Most endured some form of racial discrimination, both overt and discreet. One day, as the G Company freshmen stood in formation, Charles Foster braced in horror as cadets from another company dressed in white sheets and raced towards him screaming and yelling. A classmate of Joe Shine’s notes that as freshmen, Shine “went through ten times more than we ever went through, both physically and emotionally.” One night, some cadets poured fingernail polish remover in the shape of a cross in front of Shine’s room. They lit it, knocked on the door, and scurried off. From the moment George Graham arrived on campus in 1969, he “understood one thing early on, there were a lot of people . . . that did not want me there.” White cadets screamed racial epithets at him, and one junior questioned African Americans’ right to come to, what he called, “his school.”
While the fourth class system intensified the racial abuse some of these men endured, the hardships they faced also helped erode stereotypes held by both black and white cadets. Having grown up in a segregated society, George Graham entered The Citadel suspicious of white upperclassmen as well as his white classmates. Eventually he understood that his classmates “were just like me, they were having a unique experience. They had never really been around a black person. I had never really been around a white person in close quarters.” When Graham saw a freshman classmate faint from exhaustion one day, he broke ranks to help him. While this outraged the training cadre, his classmates noticed and appreciated it. In Graham’s words, once white cadets realized that he lacked “horns and a tail,” they began to form friendships based on character and ability, not skin color.
Benefiting from this interaction, it was members of the corps of cadets who took the lead in improving campus race relations. On at least two occasions, several members of the corps instituted an informal boycott of local establishments that refused to serve black cadets. Articles appeared in The Brigadier asking the corps “Is The Citadel biased” and declaring “now is the time to search our own campus for a way to eradicate interracial misunderstandings which thrive on prejudicial ignorance.” A tangible legacy of Joe Shine’s cadet career was his founding of the African American studies group that is still around today. Open to all students, the club’s purpose was to promote “dialogue between black and white cadets and to introduce features which will promote understanding.”
The need for such understanding became evident as a racially diverse Citadel struggled to come to terms with certain practices that divided the corps, most notably the regular playing of “Dixie” and the waving of the Confederate Battle Flag at school events. Norman Seabrooks, an all-state defensive tackle and The Citadel’s first African American scholarship athlete disliked hearing “Dixie” as a fight song, and he would sit down or walk away when he heard the tune. As captain of the football team, he would leave the locker room early and step on the field before the band started playing. Other black cadets exhibited similar protests, and Seabrook’s classmate Larry Ferguson faced a severe backlash for refusing to play the song as a member of the Regimental Band. Ferguson’s academic scholarship was threatened and one night, he and his roommate returned to the barracks to find their room trashed, racial threats painted on the walls, their books shredded, and a doll hung from the ceiling by a noose.
Such tensions remained unresolved well into the 1980s, resurfacing on the night of October 23, 1986 when five white cadets dressed up as Ku Klux Klansmen and barged into the room of a black freshmen who the five upperclassmen deemed unmotivated. The whole incident lasted approximately ninety seconds, with the five intruders scrambling out of the room leaving behind a small, singed paper cross as well as a towel with one assailant’s name and social security number stitched into it. Obviously, it didn’t take long for school officials to track down the perpetrators, who received what I believe remains the harshest punishment ever handed down short of expulsion – 195 tours apiece.
In the aftermath, internal and external examinations of campus race relations revealed significant tensions between black and white cadets over among other things, the waving of the Confederate Battle Flag at sporting events and the playing of Dixie after the corps’ weekly parades. At first, school officials backed away from dealing with these issues, with the school’s president responding, “I’m not making any changes.”
His successor, Lieutenant General Claudius E. Watts, Citadel Class of 1958 took a different tack. On September 9, 1989 tourists attending the first parade of the school year witnessed history when, for the first time in about ten years, The Citadel Band did not end the ceremony by playing Dixie. When asked about the decision not to play the song, Lieutenant General Watts responded simply, “We didn’t play it. That’s it.” People across the state refused to accept this answer, however, as many took time out of their weekend schedules to not only monitor when The Citadel’s band played Dixie, but how often they played it. Not even the winds of Hurricane Hugo could sweep this controversy away. In 1992, following widespread coverage of another racially charged incident on The Citadel’s campus, school officials banned the corps from carrying unofficial banners into sporting events and began looking for a new fight song.
This decision attracted much less attention than it might have, because by 1992, The Citadel was embroiled in a much larger battle over its single sex admission policies. This battle was hard fought and took its toll on many people. In 1992, the school discontinued its veteran’s program rather than admit three women who had sued for permission to take day classes with cadets. The stakes rose higher when Shannon Faulkner was accepted into the corps of cadets after submitting an application carefully omitting or deleting any reference to her sex. When the admissions office discovered she was a woman, they quickly revoked her acceptance. A few weeks later, Faulkner filed a lawsuit against The Citadel.
Faced with this challenge, Citadel officials tried several methods of preserving an all-male corps of cadets. They toyed with the idea of becoming a private institution. They won legislative support for and helped establish what they hoped would qualify as a “parallel” program for women at Converse College. Finally, they launched a broader conceptual defense of The Citadel’s “adversative” training methods, i.e. the fourth class system.
In the end, none of these attempts proved feasible or convincing enough to block coeducation. Financially, The Citadel could not afford to convert to private status, and the fledgling women’s “military leadership” program in Spartanburg proved far less comparable to The Citadel than hoped. One critic claimed it was about as similar to The Citadel as the “girl scouts.”
As for claims that the aggressive nature of the fourth class system precluded women’s enrollment in the corps of cadets, such a notion rested on the idea that “many – not all – young males respond well to an adversative single gender environment” and “by the same token, a more supportive single-gender educational environment is beneficial for many – not all – young women.” The Supreme Court took this argument into account when it handed down its 1996 decision finding VMI’s all-male admissions policy unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained that “neither the goal of producing citizen soldiers, nor [the college’s] implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable for women.” She concluded that stereotypical assumptions about “what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.” Almost immediately following the Supreme Court’s ruling, The Citadel’s Board of Visitors, in what the group’s chairman called the “biggest, hardest decision” the body had ever made during his tenure, voted unanimously to eliminate an applicant’s sex as an admission requirement. A classmate of Charles Foster predicted that “The Citadel will not only survive the admission of female cadets, but will eventually be recognized as having become a better school for having admitted women.” South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond spoke for many when he hoped that the admission of women to The Citadel would “mark the beginning of a proud new tradition at this very fine military institution.”
In May of 1999, Nancy Mace became the first woman to graduate from the corps of cadets. Two years later, Padgett-Thomas barracks, a Citadel landmark, crumbled to the ground. The two events aren’t related of course, but the latter stands as proof that predictions about coeducation’s destruction of The Citadel had been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, after a rough start to this new era in the school’s history, the college seems to have found its footing. Rising revenues have allowed the school to construct new barracks and renovate old ones. The number of female cadets and female applicants have risen steadily since 1996, part of a larger trend whereby total enrollment has increased and the school has had a record number of applicants for the past three years. The college consistently receives high marks in US News and World Report’s annual rankings of the nation’s colleges and universities. For those of who drove here on I-26, you already know that The Citadel has been ranked one of Newsweek’s 25 hottest colleges in America.
The Citadel did not get to this point though by avoiding hard decisions and refusing to change. In 1997, Commandant of Cadets, Brigadier General Emory endured heavy criticism for instituting changes in the entire fourth class system. In his own words, General Mace, a ’63 grad, looked to re-establish the type of system he and his classmates went through, one that was demanding yet refrained from violent hazing. A year later, The Citadel’s president Major General John S. Grinalds limited the playing of Dixie at school functions, explaining his decision as “a matter of public responsibility and personal honor. Public responsibility because I am responsible for the patriotic stance of our institution and the solidarity of the Corps of Cadets. Personal honor because many of my friends and comrades-in-arms sacrificed life and limb to preserve the freedom provided by the Constitution.”
While these are all encouraging signs, I think it important that as Lieutenant General Rosa has mentioned, the school cannot rest on its laurels which means we must avoid a particularly southern tendency to, as one person put it, congratulate ourselves for being better than we were, rather than concern ourselves with becoming better than we are. In the end, despite all these changes, two prominent traditions at The Citadel remain constant – the school still promotes honest, principled leadership and it’s still harder to make it through The Citadel than it is to make it through the University of South Carolina.
Building New Traditions: The Citadel in Post-World War II America
Alex Macaulay ’94
Assistant Professor of History
Western Carolina University
Presidential Inaugural Celebration
April 20, 2006
Mark Clark Hall