Fraternity That Reveres Robert E. Lee Faces Revolt Over Racism

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“I told them it was unacceptable and offensive to me and my family,” he recalled.

His proposal to remove the portrait, donated by an alumnus, proved more contentious. Though it has since come down, it remained hanging during alumni weekend in 2015, in part because Mr. Martin, whose father and uncles had also been Kappa Alphas, advocated for it.

The fraternity had long taught its pledges that Lee was a “perfect gentleman,” and Mr. Martin had believed at the time that his personal traits could be separated from his military leadership in the Confederacy. Besides, he had argued then, it was not wise to alienate alumni donors.

The two hadn’t spoken in several years. But Mr. Martin said he had since come to understand why Lee is widely seen as a symbol of racial intimidation. And discussions with Black members of his church after Mr. Floyd’s death, Mr. Martin said, compelled him to apologize for having “totally missed the plot,” as he put it in a text to Mr. Clark.

“T Mart!’’ replied Mr. Clark, invoking Mr. Martin’s nickname and waving aside the apology, “Good to hear from you.”

A few days later, Mr. Martin posted the first draft of the statement.

Under Kappa Alpha rules, chapters have wide leeway to make public statements. And by early July, the chapter at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, a school embroiled in a campus-wide debate over dropping Lee from its name, had publicly renounced its ties to the general.

But the Southwestern chapter’s statement was “incendiary,’’ Larry Wiese, the fraternity’s executive director, told the chapter’s president, Santiago Fernandez. If published unaltered, Mr. Wiese wrote in an email, it “could damage your chapter, the other chapters or the Order as a whole.”

“They said they would immediately suspend us if we release it,” Mr. Fernandez reported to the chat group.

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