In September, the vice president of the student government at Clemson University, Jaren Stewart, refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during a meeting of the Student Senate.
It was a show of support for the National Football League players who have knelt during the national anthem at games for the past year, a protest against racial injustice in the country.
Now a month later, Stewart, who is black, faces an impeachment trial, which he told The Anderson Independent Mail was a “social lynching” -- he believes it’s motivated by bigotry at Clemson, an institution in the Deep South previously under fire for perceived inaction on racial issues.
In particular, the Board of Trustees there has refused demands to change the name of a campus building, Tillman Hall, named after a white supremacist politician, Benjamin Tillman, who was present for the murder of a black state senator back in the 1800s -- an attempt to intimidate black voters in the post-Civil War South.
The university now won’t take a stance on the impeachment, according to a statement from a spokesman, John Gouch, who wouldn’t answer questions about race relations generally on campus.
“The university has no position on the impeachment itself, as its role is simply to ensure that our student government, which is an autonomous body, follows its own bylaws and that the process is not discriminatory in any way,” Gouch said.
Gouch declined to answer a follow-up question on whether the university felt the impeachment was motivated by discrimination, saying it wanted to respect “the student government process.” It has not yet halted the proceedings, though, and a trial date is set for November.
The student senator who introduced the articles of impeachment asserts that his action was not prejudicial, but based on Stewart’s alleged troubles with his old job as a resident assistant.
“I cannot stress enough how the situation has absolutely nothing to do with the flag protest or contain [sic] any racial motivation at all,” Miller Hoffman, the white student senator who moved to impeach Stewart, said during a student government meeting. “Such a narrative is without evidence and completely untrue.”
Stewart didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in his interview with the Independent Mail he claimed that the Student Senate had “made up [its] mind” shortly after he remained seated for the pledge, following the “trope of a villainous African-American male.”
Hoffman, meanwhile, cited as his reason for impeachment a complaint against Stewart from his time as a resident assistant the previous academic year. The leaked document purported Stewart would go into the room of two residents without permission, sometimes taking food and cleaning supplies and leaving it covered in sweat and dirt from his rugby matches, and that he went into a dormitory room while women were changing and wouldn’t leave.
Stewart confirmed to the Independent Mail that the document is authentic but debated the accuracy of the complaint, saying it was exaggerated.
His punishment is unclear -- the university won’t discuss the case, citing federal privacy laws, and while Hoffman said Stewart was fired, Stewart said he was only suspended briefly as a resident assistant. He does not work as an RA this academic year.
Most of the Student Senate has sided against Stewart. The anonymous vote in favor of an impeachment trial was 40 to 18.
Since the NFL protests have prompted a national debate over race -- with members of the Trump administration harshly condemning the players taking a knee -- buzz about the Clemson case has spread rapidly both across campus and online.
A thread on the Clemson Reddit page is entirely devoted to Stewart’s potential impeachment, with someone asking, “Is there a real reason aside from the other senators disliking him?”
“The trouble is (if I'm reading this correctly) that the issues at hand were totally an [sic] thing before he sat for the pledge, and they're only now being talked about because he did so,” another Reddit user wrote. “Makes it seem a lot less like they're trying to impeach him for what he did and more like they're trying to impeach him for sitting for the pledge.”
One Twitter user posted that the controversy was unsurprising, given Clemson’s history.
Perhaps the most notable element of the racially charged campus debate was the trustees’ defense of Tillman Hall. Support among students and faculty for a name change was significant. Both the graduate student government and the Faculty Senate voted early 2015 to change the name of the building.
Tillman was a South Carolina governor and United States senator who deeply opposed rights for black people and openly bragged about harming them. His statue also stands on the South Carolina statehouse grounds. State law makes it difficult to change the name of the building at Clemson, but at board has never advocated for it.
The board outright rejected a request to change the name, with former chairman David H. Wilkins saying at the time, “Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so. For that reason, we will not change the name of our historical buildings.”
In April 2016, students occupied the steps of Sikes Hall for nine days with complaints the university hadn’t been vocal enough against racism, that minority students had nowhere on campus to meet and feel safe, and that the administration had not “embraced” them.
Five students were arrested in the sit-in for trying to enter the building once it had closed.
President Jim Clements agreed to some of the protesters’ demands at the time, though some were watered down.
He pledged that the university would double its minority faculty numbers by 2025 and increase the population of underrepresented students on campus. About 7 percent of the student body is black, compared to about 27.5 percent of the population in the state.
All employees would undergo diversity training, Clements promised at the time, and the institution would find a more “appropriate” location for the campus multicultural center.
Clemson has been lauded for its diversity efforts in some cases.
The university reported in 2012 that about 10 percent of all the black faculty and Ph.D. students who work in computer science at research universities were at Clemson. Clemson had hired six black tenure-track computer science professors when there were 56 in the country at the time, the university said.