In "The Lords of Discipline," a fictionalized account of the horrors of plebe life here at the Citadel, the tradition-steeped military college is rocked by a scandal over a secret white brotherhood's sadistic attempts to drive out the first black cadet.
Citadel officials have always dismissed the 1980 novel by Citadel alumnus Pat Conroy as grossly unflattering and untrue. They even turned down a $200,000 offer from a television production company to use the campus for a film version of the book, fearing that "it might take a century" to recover from the bad publicity.
But in a strange twist of fate, the 124-year-old school--whose white battlements and parapets rise like those of a Moorish fortress along the turgid Ashley River--now finds itself besieged by controversy over a recent campus hazing incident that invites inevitable comparisons with Conroy's novel.
According to numerous published reports of the incident, five white cadets dressed in sheets and towels to resemble Ku Klux Klansmen burst into the room of a black freshman--or "knob" as first-year students are known because of their shaved heads--as he lay sleeping in his bunk on Oct. 23.
Charred Paper Cross
They allegedly shouted obscenities and racial epithets at him and then swiftly departed, leaving behind a charred cross made of newspaper.
The black cadet, Kevin Nesmith, who has since resigned from the school, is said to have slept through the event. But his roommate awakened and succeeded in pulling a towel off one of the cadets, revealing his identity.
School officials, in response, ordered what has been described as the stiffest punishment ever meted out in the school's history. The five white cadets--all juniors and all from small towns in the South--are confined to the campus for the rest of the academic year, except for legal holidays, and each has been given 195 additional 50-minute marching "tours." The three cadets with noncommissioned ranks also were demoted to private.
But despite the severity of the punishment, and protestations by administrators that the cadets' actions do not reflect the real racial atmosphere at the Citadel, the widespread outrage over the incident refuses to die down.
On Dec. 18, for example, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit on Nesmith's behalf in U.S. District Court in Charleston, accusing the Citadel of sanctioning "overt racial bigotry." It seeks $800,000 in damages for "severe emotional distress, mental anguish and pain" inflicted on the black cadet.
NAACP National Director Benjamin L. Hooks has commented: "It is unbelievable that such an incident could have happened in this country in 1986. It was either racial or stupid. And I think this incident is symptomatic of far deeper problems on the Citadel campus."
Hooks' remarks indicate the unusually strong passions that this incident has aroused among blacks in Charleston, where they make up nearly half the population of this aristocratic old seaport, and elsewhere in the nation.
Incidents of harassment of black students have been occurring on other U.S. campuses this year. Over the Easter weekend, for instance, in an incident little publicized outside Alabama, two white students burned a cross in front of a black sorority house on the University of Alabama campus.
But an especially raw nerve seems to have been touched by the incident at the Citadel, no doubt owing to the school's unique history and strong Confederate heritage.
One of only two state-supported, all-male military colleges in the nation, the Citadel was founded in 1842 in the wake of a slave insurrection. In 1861, Citadel cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War from the city's south battery--an event reenacted time and again by new generations of Citadel students.
The corps of cadets marches in a full-dress parade every Friday afternoon, the brass buttons on their Confederate-gray uniforms gleaming in the sun as they strut to the strains of "Dixie." The Confederate anthem also is played before and after every home football game as well as after every Citadel touchdown.
"The South lost the Civil War, and they might as well understand that at the Citadel," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Blacks were first admitted to the Citadel two decades ago, but they still make up only 6% of the 1,960 cadets, even though blacks are 32% of the population of the state.
There already have been at least two other reported racial incidents at the school this year. In one, a cadet told a racial joke in the presence of a black cadet; in the other, a black plebe was harassed because of his supposedly striking resemblance to the black cadet in Conroy's "The Lords Of Discipline."
Citadel officials say the incident in October involving Nesmith has been blown out of proportion and does not reflect the real racial atmosphere at the school.
"This is an aberration and not an indication of the relations between white and black cadets or white and black faculty members on campus," Citadel President James A. Grimsley Jr., a retired Army major general, said at a news conference after the hazing incident.
"I would like to write it off as a college prank that got out of hand," he said.
Nevertheless, he announced the creation of a panel to investigate the "allegations, innuendoes and rumors" of other racial problems at the school. The report is expected to be completed by Jan. 31.
Grimsley declined to be interviewed for this article and refused to make any cadets available for questioning. The Citadel is a walled campus with entry allowed only through guarded gates.
Members of Charleston's black community, including civil rights activists and many prominent ministers, say they are convinced that the problems run deep. They have marched in the streets, knelt in prayer in front of the school's gates and demonstrated at Citadel football games to express their feelings. Some have even called for Grimsley's resignation as president.
"Heretofore, the black community has not been too involved with what has been going on at the Citadel," said the Rev. Frank Portee III, pastor of the Old Bethel United Methodist Church. "But this incident opened up a can of worms and allowed us to take a really hard look at what is going on over there." Nesmith, 17, of Charleston resigned from the school in disgust a month ago, claiming that harassment by other cadets after the hazing incident left him "mentally drained."
'The Villains Remain'
"I feel I was made the villain when I am not, and the villains remain at the Citadel," he said in a statement released to reporters. "Anger and frustration built up, and I felt . . . I no longer wanted to subject myself to this humiliation." His older brother Alonzo, a 1979 Citadel graduate and the first and still only black on the Board of Visitors, the school's powerful governing body, branded the incident an "act of terrorism" and said the white students should have been expelled.
The Nesmith family plans to file suit against the school and the five white cadets, contending abridgment of the younger Nesmith's civil rights and seeking financial damages for his mental anguish.
"If you allow men to dress up like the Ku Klux Klan and burn a cross in the room of a black student, then you have racism at its height," said Karen Kennedy, an Albuquerque, N.M., attorney who represents the Nesmith family.
Defenders of the school contend that the incident was not racially motivated but stemmed from a feeling among some upperclassmen that Nesmith was "jumping rank" and was falling short in his academic performance. In a traditional pattern at the school, they say, the hazing incident was designed to snap Nesmith into shaping up.
Police Chief's View
"This incident has no more to do with the Ku Klux Klan than if you and I were to go out and shove a guy in the street and say we were sent by the PLO," said Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg, himself black and a Jew. "What happened is that these five cadets saw a fellow cadet who in their opinion was not cutting the mustard.
"He had an image on campus, among both black and white cadets, as being a fat, sloppy kid who couldn't stay in step, looked terrible in his uniform and was performing at the bare minimum."
Nevertheless, Greenberg said, white cadets at the Citadel undoubtedly needed to be made more attuned to black sensibilities.
The U.S. Justice Department and the South Carolina Human Relations Commission are investigating the incident.
The Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the case but the state human affairs commissioner, James E. Clyburn, said his agency's investigation has revealed, among other things, that, contrary to reports at the time, the five white cadets did not hurl any racial epithets.
No Slur Cited
"I've read transcripts of Nesmith's testimony, of his roommate's testimony and of the testimony of the five white cadets, and there is nothing in any of them about a racial slur," Clyburn, who is black, said. "According to Nesmith's roommate, the only thing the cadets said to Nesmith was 'Nesmith, Nesmith, get your ---- in a pile.' "
He explained that the obscene expression is campus vernacular for "get your act together."
Clyburn said there had also been serious breakdowns in communications between black leaders and Citadel officials in dealing with the incident.
He cited as an example a meeting between Grimsley and representatives of the city's black clergy. Clyburn said that at one point a minister demanded to know of the school's president if he had changed the punishment.
"Yes, I did," Grimsley replied.
"Because I felt it was the appropriate thing to do and I accept full responsibility for having done it," Grimsley said.
The minister jumped to his feet and snapped: "Then you are a racist and you know that I know you are a racist!"
It was a full week later that the ministers learned, to their embarrassment, that when Grimsley had said he changed the punishment, he meant that he had actually increased it--not decreased it, as the clergyman had assumed.
Grimsley, in fact, boosted the number of marching "tours" for the five white cadets to 195 from the 120 recommended by the school's disciplinary board, and added the six months' confinement to campus.
Still, Clyburn said, the overall racial climate at the military college is far from perfect.
"There is a significant amount of insensitivity toward blacks on that campus," he said. "Of course, these are people who are looking to make the military their lives--and they're not especially liberal to begin with."
The incident also has drawn widespread attention from Citadel alumni, for whom the uniforms, discipline, routine, honor code and punishment are part of a life for which they maintain an enduring love-hate relationship.
"The thing to me about the present incident is that it seems less of a racial act than a sick prank," said Bill Buckley, an Atlanta attorney and 1971 Citadel graduate. "As far as their punishment goes, it's probably worse than being expelled. They're going to have a lot less enjoyable life at the Citadel over the next six months than if they had been expelled and transferred elsewhere."
Researcher Diana Rector of the Times' Atlanta Bureau contributed to this story.