A group of young black women poised to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy gathered on the steps of West Point’s oldest barracks last week in traditional gray dress uniforms, complete with sabers, for a group photo. Known as an “Old Corps” photograph because it mimics historical portraits, it was nearly identical to thousands that cadets have posed for over the decades, with one key difference: The 16 women raised their clenched fists.
The gesture, posted on Facebook and Twitter last week, touched off a barrage of criticism in and out of the armed forces as some commenters accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.
West Point opened an investigation on April 28 into whether the women violated Army rules that prohibit political activities while in uniform. Now, as the women wait to hear if they will be punished, they are gaining supporters who say they were simply making a gesture of solidarity and strength.
The elite public military academy, which trains many of the Army’s future leaders, is overwhelmingly male and 70 percent white. The 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in a graduating class of about 1,000, a meager 1.7 percent. But the Army has long tried to play down race and gender to create a force where “everyone is green.”
The 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in a graduating class of about 1,000, a meager 1.7 percent.
When it comes to protest, West Point could not be more different from a civilian campus, where demonstrations, sit-ins and leaflets are commonplace.
At the military academy, in contrast, public displays of politics by students and staffers are prohibited in an effort to build a unified force that remains clear of partisanship.
The group photo has revealed an underlying tension at West Point.
The academy, while seeking to foster a diverse student body that reflects the nation, also aims to educate future officers in the regimented ways of the military, in which the only differences that matter are the ranks displayed on soldiers’ shoulders.
At the heart of the controversy is the gesture the women chose: Did it represent a divisive political statement, a matter of free speech, or just a case of students showing their sense of accomplishment as graduation, set for May 21, drew near?
John Burk, an Iraq veteran turned blogger who lives in Georgia, said he was sent the photo by a concerned person at West Point. On Tuesday, he wrote a post saying that by raising their fists, the women were identified with Black Lives Matter activists “known for inflicting violent protest throughout various parts of the United States, calling for the deaths of police officers, and even going so far as to call for the deaths of white Americans.”
John Burk, an Iraq war veteran and a former drill sergeant who is white, said via email that he had disciplined soldiers for making Nazi salutes in photos, and felt the raised fist was not much different.
Burk, a former drill sergeant, who is white, said via email that he had disciplined soldiers for making Nazi salutes in photos, and felt the raised fist was not much different. “The fact that it could offend someone by its usage qualifies it as a symbol that goes against Army policies,” he said, adding, “It’s not the fact that they are wrong for having their beliefs, it’s the fact they did it while in uniform.”
But others who have spoken with the cadets said evoking Black Lives Matter was not their intention, and that the raised fist that was once a sign of militant uprising is now often a pop culture symbol of strength and pride that has been hoisted in such mundane settings as this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.
“These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé,” said Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate of West Point and an Iraq veteran who is a mentor to some of the seniors and has talked with them about the photograph.
“For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood. That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country.”
She said the women were dismayed by the controversy they had caused. She said most of the West Point graduates she had contacted in recent days saw the women’s gesture as a mistake and plan to lobby against punishment.
These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé.
Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate of West Point and an Iraq veteran who has talked with some of the seniors she mentors about the photograph
Gestures of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, which seeks to bring attention to the killing of African-Americans by the police, are hardly uncommon among college students.
Such protests have roiled many campuses, and a photograph distributed on social media of black football players at the University of Missouri linking arms and vowing to boycott a big game prompted a reshuffling of the university’s top leadership.
There is a very different environment at West Point, where incoming students are stripped of all personal possessions, including watches and glasses, and remolded through weeks of grueling team building and history lessons into cadets.
The academy permits an array of student groups, including a club for black cadets, known as the Contemporary Affairs Club, but activism is not a permitted activity.
West Point officials declined to comment on what punishment, if any, the women might receive, saying an inquiry was ongoing.
This is not the first time students have made a political statements in an Old Corps photo. In 1976, the year before women were admitted to the academy, male cadets widely referred to themselves as “the last class with balls,” according to an officer who teaches at West Point. The officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak, said that a number of seniors that year posed for a photo holding armloads of basketballs, footballs and baseballs. They were not punished, the officer said.
Among Black Lives Matter activists, the women’s gesture was viewed as a generic one that did not necessarily show solidarity with any political cause. Jonathan Pulphus, a junior at St. Louis University and an organizer for the movement, said raising the fist was a way for a younger generation of blacks to pay respect to civil rights accomplishments and create “a space for themselves in institutions where they tend to not have a sense of belonging.”
He said a failure by West Point to recognize this could discourage black students from applying.
“If you want to make an institution appeal to a certain kind of crowd,” he added, “you don’t stigmatize some of the more important cultural pieces to a student’s background.”
John Eligon contributed reporting for the New York Times.