A purple stain
AT THE end of a column several weeks ago I took what some might feel is a cheap shot at the Purple Shadows when I compared their sartorial predilections to those of the Ku Klux Klan. I'd like to explain why this is not unfair, why the Purple Shadows are a particularly unwholesome secret society and why the Honor Committee must sever its ties with this group.
In a letter to a Cavalier Daily reporter in 1963, the Purple Shadows explained their goals as working for "the constant betterment of the University" and as "safeguarding, by constant vigil, of the fundamental traditions which have made this university a unique and renowned institution."
One should be clear that at the time this letter was written, a year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the traditions of the University included allowing few women to matriculate and even fewer black people. As for the Purple Shadows' vague assertion that they worked for the "constant betterment" of the University, I presume that meant in part getting rid of the small numbers of blacks and women who slipped by admissions.
Admittedly this evidence is circumstantial, but the burden of proof is on the Purple Shadows to prove their origins were not racist (few deny they were sexist). When these Southern traditionalists chose to dress themselves in flowing robes and pointy hoods to defend traditional values, they were well aware they were conjuring associations with the KKK. Anyone alive in those years of cross-burning, bombing and lynching in the South would have heard that message loud and clear. This fact alone should have forever stained the name of this society and certainly should preclude any ties whatsoever to the Honor Committee.
The Purple Shadows will almost doubtless stay silent. In their own pompous words from 1963, they claim to release only a "minimum quantum" of information about their organization. That ought to satisfy neither the University community nor the Honor Committee, which currently welcomes the Purple Shadows when they crash the annual Honor banquet and celebrates the award the Purple Shadows give there with a plaque in one of the Honor offices. The Honor Committee also gathers nominations for this award on the Purple Shadows' behalf.
Honor should gather no more nominations, remove the plaque and make clear that it will evict the Purple Shadows the next time they show up at the Honor banquet unless at least one quantum of information -- an explanation of the group's origins and its concrete goals in the past and today -- is delivered by that organization to the University community.
And if the Purple Shadows can convince the University community that despite a tawdry past they are not racists today, should we then accept them as a legitimate institution within the University? The answer is no. In general, there is no reason organizations created with the intent of expounding racism and sexism should remain even though they have come to disown those ideas. They simply have no legitimacy -- they don't need to be reformed but rather to be disbanded and unceremoniously buried.
The Purple Shadows, to maintain their legitimacy, must prove not only they are not racist today, but that racist goals were not a significant part of their original mission. If they cannot do so, they deserve the same scorn that in the past they have been known to heap on others.
This is a subtle point. We do not demand the University itself disappear since it was once racist and sexist since it was not founded with racism and sexism as basic goals, but rather for the transmission and creation of useful knowledge. The University's bad practices were incidental to its primary purpose. The Purple Shadows, by contrast, were founded at a time when the University was straining to define itself in an integrating world. Conservative students and alumni opposed the matriculation of minorities and women. By choosing the symbols that they did the Purple Shadows appear to have put themselves in this camp along with such gentlemen as George Wallace and Bull Connor. There are no mitigating circumstances.
Honor Committee Chair Ben Cooper told me there is little harm in a group such as the Purple Shadows recognizing the efforts of students working hard to maintain the honor system. He is emphatically wrong. If interested students and alumni want to create a new secret society to defend the single sanction and recognize those who serve the system, then that is their business. But the Purple Shadows are morally compromised until proven otherwise and should be duly evicted from their tenancy as an ally of Honor. If the Honor Committee refuses to do so of its own accord, the University community must defend its honor by insisting upon it.
Andrew Winerman's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.