Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.

Clashes over Confederate monuments have reached a fever pitch in the wake of the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a white nationalist rally two weeks ago, and attorney Dominik Taylor knows firsthand how emotionally charged the debate can be.

He and a small group of minority classmates at Washington and Lee University School of Law in 2014 successfully pushed university officials to remove Confederate flags from campus. The efforts by Taylor and the other students also forced the school to officially recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day and to bolster diversity and inclusion initiatives. The students also advocated for the university to take a more comprehensive view of one of its namesakes: Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who became president of the Lexington, Virginia, university after the Civil War. Lee is buried in Lee Chapel on campus.

Dominik Taylor.

After graduating in 2014, Taylor completed a fellowship with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, where he represented clients on death row and minors facing life in prison. We spoke with Taylor, who is now a public defender in Fairfield, California, about his advocacy at Washington and Lee and what he has learned about taking a stand. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

ALM: How do you feel about the name Washington and Lee University? Should “Lee” be removed?

Taylor: I think that’s a difficult question. I don’t think there is a quick, right or wrong answer. My hope for everybody is that we continue to probe around who Robert E. Lee was as a man, and not just his positive contributions to the university but a more holistic approach to who exactly he was—the good and the bad. That’s the same for everybody. If we’re going to name something after somebody, we should look at all they have done and learn from the good things they did and also acknowledge their faults. A lot of what made us uncomfortable back in 2014 was that Robert E. Lee was held up as a pillar of righteousness and honor—he was trustworthy, dependable and very intelligent. That got readily acknowledged on campus. But the fact that he owned slaves and fought to defend the Confederacy and the institution of slavery didn’t actually get described. I don’t think it’s a matter of taking a poll and saying, “Should we take Lee’s names off of the university?” We must go deeper than that.

ALM: Tell me about your activism at the university and what you and your classmates hoped to achieve.

Taylor: My classmates and I formed a student organization called The Committee. We did it with four specific aims all centered around increasing inclusiveness and creating a better campus environment for minority students and all students generally, while also challenging some of the notions we felt were just accepted on campus without further probing.

What was so prominent on campus was the role of Robert E. Lee in the growth and expansion of the university after the Civil War. He’s buried on campus along with his wife and even his horse Traveller. There’s a monument that he’s buried underneath. There’s a statue that depicts him in Confederate garb.

At the time I was present, there were Confederate battle flag replicas on campus. That was the environment, and no one really questioned it. What we were trying to do was question what had happened in the past and tie it to how alienated and misunderstood we felt as minority students.

ALM: What were your specific demands?

Taylor: We had four specific demands. The first was the one we thought we’d have the most political will for, which was the suspension of classes on Martin Luther King Day. That became a federal holiday in 1986. In 2014, when I was on campus, the law school suspended classes and recognized MLK Day, but the undergraduate side did not.

The next was the issue of Confederate flags being displayed across campus. In Lee Chapel, the statue of Robert E. Lee was surrounded at the time with replica Confederate battle flags. One of the things Robert E. Lee instituted at Washington and Lee was a very intensive honor system that every student has to sign off on. One of the first distinct memories I and my classmates had was on the first day of orientation, you are shuffled into Lee Chapel where you have to sign the honor pledge. At the front of that room is a statue of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags. As a minority student, it makes you very uncomfortable. What we wanted was not necessarily to get rid of all the flags, because there is a small museum at Lee Chapel where it should be, but to not promote the flag and place them in prominent places where it can lead to a lot of divisiveness among students or make them feel unwanted.

Another demand we had was for the university to stop allowing white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and people dressed in Confederate uniforms from utilizing campus facilities and marching across campus. A big thing in Virginia is Lee-Jackson Day, or as it later became Lee-Jackson-King Day in the commonwealth of Virginia—a holiday commemorating Stonewall Jackson and, of course, General Lee. Every year, people dressed in replica Confederate garb and toting Confederate battle flags would march across the campus and utilize Lee Chapel for their programming. We wanted the university to stop allowing that to happen.

Lastly, we wanted the university to engage in meaningful discussions about diversity and inclusiveness, and about how we as a small Southern liberal arts school can attract minority students and make them feel welcome. 

ALM: Did the university meet your demands?

Taylor: Shortly after we formed The Committee, the university did indeed remove the Confederate battle flags from Lee Chapel. The university also now recognizes Martin Luther King Day as a university holiday on both the undergraduate and law sides. Classes are suspended and there’s a week of programming commemorating Dr. King. It’s my understanding that [the] university is still, to this day, exploring issues of diversity and inclusion, as well as more recently exploring the conceptions of identity and who we are as a W and L community.

Lastly, the university no longer allows white nationalists and neo-Confederates to utilize university facilities on Lee-Jackson Day. All our demands were met. But it’s an ongoing struggle. The work doesn’t stop just because those four demands were met. 

ALM: What did you learn from your work with The Committee?

Taylor: One of the biggest things is that no matter how small or marginalized you may feel sometimes, if you are experiencing pain or have a sentiment that isn’t being addressed, it’s OK to speak out about that discomfort. Particularly as a minority in this country—and especially on a primarily white campus—you can be made to feel that your viewpoint doesn’t mater. One thing I learned was that it’s OK to use your voice and to engage in constructive criticism of the university’s practices in hopes of making it a more welcoming place for all.

Another thing I learned was that sometimes, in order to effect change, you have to do what’s uncomfortable. It wasn’t comfortable at all for us to make these demands and sit in meetings with [former law Dean Nora Demleitner] and with our classmates who were questioning our motives, or whether we were speaking too hyperbolically. But engaging in that dialogue and having those hard discussions, we were able to get our viewpoint out. A lot of the campus community was able to see the plight of minority students at W and L and see how something as seemingly innocuous as the name of a chapel and the displaying of a flag can be deeply harmful.

ALM: Do you think there’s greater potential to engage meaningfully on these issues coming off the violence in Charlottesville?

Taylor: I think we’re at a special time, and I’m hopeful. This feels different than in the past. If you look back to 2014 when we formed The Committee, and look at all that’s happened since I graduated law school—there’s a lot of talk about police brutality, you had Charleston [,South Carolina,], and now you have Charlottesville. And of course you have the election of our current president and the riling up of nativist, white nationalist sentiment on the campaign trail. Right now, it feels like there is a deeper discussion. On my way to work, in the the local coffee shop, I hear people utter the words “white supremacy” and talk about how we need to engage in deeper discussions about diversity. That’s something that certainly wasn’t happening a few years ago.

ALM: Any advice for students who might want to get involved in these issues?

Taylor: Continue learning as much as possible. We’re at a place in our country where people are holding firm to their views and they’re not necessarily willing to listen to the other side. If you’re looking to effectuate change, you really have to understand both sides of the issue and understand where the other side is coming from.

Particularly for students of color on predominantly white campuses, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion or be afraid to stand up and speak out when something is wrong. The white students on campus must also be willing to look in the mirror and question their own beliefs.