At VMI, two classmates — one Black, one white — war over school’s future
The Washington Post February 21, 2023
Right after Cedric T. Wins became the first Black leader in Virginia Military Institute’s history, the school’s former basketball star received a hero’s welcome.
One enthusiastic fan: Matt Daniel, his “brother rat,” as VMI classmates call one another, who’d graduated the same year as Wins in 1985. In VMI’s alumni magazine, Daniel hailed Wins as just the kind of person needed to steer the nation’s oldest state-supported military college through a tumultuous time: a state-ordered investigation into its racial climate; the resignation of the school’s longtime superintendent; and the decision to remove a century-old statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson from its hallowed perch on the Lexington campus.
“If there was ever a leader to take the helm and navigate VMI through such odd and dark, shark-infested waters, it is Cedric Wins,” Daniel, who is white, wrote in his class notes column in the VMI Alumni Review in early 2021. “Welcome back to Lexington, Cedric.”
But in the two years since Wins took command, he is still swimming in dangerous waters, in part because of Daniel.
Months into the new superintendent’s tenure, Daniel, now 60, and other 1985 graduates launched a political action committee called the Spirit of VMI. The group has been pushing back forcefully against Wins, 59, and his diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, which are intended to attract more minorities and women to campus and make them feel valued and respected as cadets.
“Reject the woke assault on VMI,” one of the PAC’s websites blares in all-caps. “Close ranks.”
The 183-year-old school, whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War, did not admit African Americans until 1968 or women until 1997. VMI remains mostly white and male, with Black students making up about 8% of the 1,500 corps of cadets, and women accounting for 13.5%. It received $29 million from the state for this academic year.
The Spirit of VMI’s war on diversity, equity and inclusion — and the Black superintendent championing it — has been waged in the group’s meetings with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and his secretary of education, Daniel told his supporters at a recent gathering.
It has been waged at VMI’s Board of Visitors, whose decision to award Wins a $100,000 bonus, on top of his $656,000 annual salary, prompted the PAC to question whether he deserved it, citing a 25% drop in the size of the freshman class.
It has been waged on a conservative talk radio show, where two white PAC donors have suggested Wins should be removed and where Daniel twice denounced a campus DEI talk by an author, who is a lesbian, as “garbage.”
And it has been waged on Facebook, where the PAC has posted incendiary cartoons mocking VMI’s diversity efforts. One cartoon published in a PAC newsletter showed a trash can with a sign sticking out saying “DEI” and a woman stuffed inside, upside down, her high-heeled legs hanging over the top of the bin. VMI’s DEI office — which is in the process of being renamed the Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion office — is led by two Black women: Jamica Love, the chief diversity officer, who is on a leave of absence, and Briana Williams, now the acting chief diversity officer.
The illustrations are widely believed by school officials and alumni to be the work of Daniel, who served as the cartoonist for VMI’s student newspaper four decades ago. The Post has asked Daniel whether he’s the author of the PAC’s cartoons, but he has declined to answer.
When Wins saw one of the PAC cartoons in November, he posted on Facebook that Daniel was “looking desperate and racist.” He later deleted the remark and apologized to Daniel.
In response, the Spirit of VMI issued a press release denying that its criticism of Wins was racially motivated and saying his racism allegation against Daniel was “shamelessly leveled.”
This month, the PAC, whose supporters are mostly white, argued in an essay on its blog that DEI’s “purpose is to cow Americans into agreeing with the fundamental premise that white people are inherently and irredeemably racist.”
“Many of the people appointed in DEI departments act like gangsters,” the piece said, “employing the Cancel Culture tactics of fear and intimidation to control their minions.”
The PAC has also published ads in the student newspaper displaying QR codes for two PragerU videos, which charge that DEI “is ultimately about only one thing: advancing those who are not white, heterosexual and male at the expense of white, heterosexual men, regardless of their respective qualifications.”
Daniel did not respond to detailed questions about the PAC, his attacks on DEI and his views about Wins’s performance. On Friday, the PAC shared the questions in a blog post. In a press release and fundraising appeal, the group accused The Post of defending “the political jihad” against VMI and vowed not to be “slowed or intimidated by weaponized journalism.”
The Spirit of VMI’s influence has grown steadily in the two years since its launch. The group has 800 followers on its Facebook page, many of them VMI alumni. It has raised more than $273,000, including contributions from one former VMI board member and one current member. After giving $25,000 to Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign, the PAC boasted in July that it had recommended two of VMI’s four new board members appointed by the governor.
But Wins, who declined an interview request, has maintained strong support from VMI board president Tom Watjen.
“Every time he gets attacked, I feel attacked,” Watjen told The Post in November.
The growing animosity between Daniel and Wins has been anguishing for many alumni, especially those who graduated with them in 1985.
“I am brokenhearted,” said Palmer Hamilton, a white 1985 classmate and former Army captain, who worked with Daniel on the student newspaper and wrote stories about Wins and the basketball team’s triumphs during their senior year. “I am witnessing something analogous to what is happening in our country with red and blue divisions. Matt loves VMI, and Cedric is the same way. They love what VMI can do for our country. Matt’s afraid that’s going away — and that DEI promotes differences and erodes the way the school strips away your identity. Cedric’s burden is, ‘How do I keep the train on the tracks?’ ”
Terrace “Terry” Thompson, 60, a Black member of the Class of 1985, said he considered Daniel one of the nicest cadets in the corps, and that he still has one of his old cartoons tucked away among his VMI memorabilia.
“If you lined up 100 of my brother rats — all of them white — and asked me which one would turn on the future Black superintendent, he wouldn’t be the one I’d say. Not Matt,” said Thompson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and senior program manager at Intel. “One question I would ask him is, ‘Do you want VMI to go back to something? If so, then what?’ ”
‘Talking about race’
The two young men both came from military families, but different worlds.
Wins, who grew up in Hyattsville, Md., is the son of a retired Army staff sergeant who enlisted in the military just after the 1945 Japanese surrender in World War II — at a time when the U.S. armed forces were still segregated. He served in the Korea and Vietnam wars, according to his obituary, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Wins became the first member of his family to attend college, winning a full scholarship to play basketball at VMI.
Daniel, a Tennessee native who graduated from high school in Newport News, Va., had a great-grandfather who fought for the Confederacy under Stonewall Jackson, according to an interview Daniel’s father gave for an oral history project at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Daniel’s dad John “Jack” Spencer Daniel Jr. was a 1954 VMI graduate, who became an Army Ranger and served in Vietnam. Daniel had two older brothers who also attended VMI.
In August 1981, though, the pedigrees Daniel and Wins brought to VMI didn’t matter. They were now among an estimated 455 freshman “rats” entering the “rat line,” a grueling, months-long initiation period similar to boot camp.
Fewer than 20 of the freshmen were Black, but they would be led by the college’s first Black regimental commander, senior Darren McDew, the highest-ranking student in the corps of cadets, and a future four-star Air Force general.
Back then, VMI cadets weren’t shy about celebrating the college’s Confederate history. In 1981, when VMI visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a football game, they brought the Confederate flag, according to a photo in the New York Times.
But several Black students from the Class of 1985, including Wins, said in public statements or in interviews they never personally experienced racism as VMI cadets. Some said they knew little about Stonewall Jackson — a VMI physics professor who enslaved six people — and weren’t offended by the requirement to salute his statue or even by his engraved image on their class ring.
On his senior yearbook page, Wins, who ended his VMI basketball career as one of the top five scorers in school history, hinted at the challenges the college posed.
He thanked his parents “because without your support I couldn’t have endured ‘THE BULL’ ” and lauded his roommates: “we had that certain chemistry and could understand each other, but not this place.”
And he addressed VMI directly, writing, “well, thanks for challenging me academically ... I know you didn’t teach me to be a man, because that can’t be taught, and even if you could I doubt I’d become your type of man.”
Wins spent 34 years in the Army, including time in Afghanistan, before retiring in January 2020 as a two-star major general.
Daniel ran track at VMI, satirized cadet life in his student newspaper cartoons and was elected “class historian.”
In a 2021 interview with The Washington Post, he said he was friends with several of his Black teammates on the track team and that, during his senior year, he joined Promaji, the college’s student group for minorities.
“I’ve never seen anybody at VMI do anything racist at all,” Daniel said in the interview. “We didn’t sit around and talk about the Civil War ... I don’t even remember talking about race — ever.”
Daniel joined the Marine Corps in 1985 and became a fighter pilot, receiving an Air Medal for supporting operations over Bosnia in early 1994. He remained active-duty until the late 1990s, and stayed in the reserves until 2008, according to a military spokeswoman.
Daniel also stayed involved in VMI alumni circles, serving as an ambassador for the Class of 1985. In his alumni magazine columns as class agent, he gave Wins shout-outs for becoming a one-star general and mourned the 2012 death of Black classmate LaMont Toliver, the president of the Promaji club during their senior year. Daniel and Wins, he wrote, were among the 1,500 people who attended a memorial service in Toliver’s honor.
But two years later, on Nov. 25, 2014, Daniel took to his public Facebook page to denounce rioters in Ferguson, Mo. They’d set fire to buildings after a grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.
“Utterly embarrassing: this nonsense, this Ferguson b------t ... I’ve had enough. Animals. I guess now I am a racist too,” Daniel told his friends.
Below the post, in a comment, Daniel added: “Let’s hope all of these destructive animals go home and build a plan to become law-abiding contributors instead of the arsonists, looters, muggers, rapists, drug addicts, pimps, whores, gangster a-----e cowards that they obviously are.”
In 2020, the country was gripped again by racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On Aug. 14, 2020, Daniel issued a two-word Facebook post: “Cannon Hinnant.”
The name — a 5-year-old white boy in North Carolina who was allegedly killed by a Black man — had become a rallying cry among conservatives. They believed that liberals and mainstream news outlets were ignoring the killing because the accused shooter was Black and the victim was white.
One of Daniel’s Facebook friends gave a full-throated reply: Cedric Wins.
He called the child’s death tragic, but also noted that CNN and other news outlets had reported on it and that the perpetrator would be “punished to the full extent of the law.”
“We should all do ourselves a favor and THINK before we launch a rant. ... But to try and make a false comparison to the death of George Floyd should end when you UNDERSTAND that were it not for video and protests, no charges would have been brought for his murder,” Wins wrote. “Charges in the murder of Breonna Taylor, who was killed when cops shot 20 rounds into the house in which she lived, have yet to be charged. See the difference?”
Daniel replied: “I looked for it yesterday and posted his name solely because of media neglect. Period. Since then, Fox has picked it up and I guess CNN May have too. They were too slow. Media coverage is criminally slanted Left and will contribute to the undoing of this Republic ... I would hardly call this post a rant.”
By the end of 2020, Daniel said on Facebook that he opened an account under the username @EggBoyRises on Gab, a social media platform popular with white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right figures. About six months later, the Spirit of VMI also started a Gab account.
Both accounts have been used only rarely. But, in one December 2020 post on the @EggBoyRises account, a drawing of “Egg Boy” stands next to what appears to be an ostrich with its head in the sand under a sign that reads, “Leftie Training Camp Station #1.” The comment above the drawing reads, “EGG-BOY UBER ALLES!”
The phrase “Über Alles” was once in a verse of the German national anthem and means “above all.” But it was cut from the song after World War II because the phrase was embraced by the Nazis and is considered offensive.
On LinkedIn, Daniel has argued that “the reason why our education system is broken i[s] because Liberals have imbued in it the toxic waste and fabricated storyline of systemic racial bias, engineered history and perverted disgusting sexual hogwash.”
He’s also invoked the names of the World Economic Forum’s executive chairman Klaus Schwab, and Jewish billionaire George Soros — favorite targets of antiglobalist and antisemitic conspiracy theorists.
In a LinkedIn post that’s been taken down, he wrote, “[I]t’s the Dr. Evil Gepettos like the Klaus Schwabs, George Soros (and others) that create hell on Earth.”
It was another VMI alumnus, former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who prompted the formation of the Spirit of VMI.
Northam’s order to investigate VMI’s culture — and his pronouncement that the school suffered from a “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” before the probe even got underway — left Daniel and other alumni outraged. They were being attacked as racists with no proof, Daniel told supporters in 2021.
“The most racist thing that I have ever seen come from anybody at VMI,” Daniel told The Post in 2021, was Northam’s medical school yearbook.
The governor’s page displayed a photo of one person in blackface, another in a Ku Klux Klan uniform. Northam first said he was in the photo, but didn’t identify which person he was. Then he denied he was in the picture.
As the independent probe into racism at VMI got underway in 2021, Daniel and other classmates set out to defend their alma mater’s reputation.
“First statement here I’d like to say is that everybody should understand that we are strongly opposed to racism or discrimination of any kind,” Daniel told viewers in a PAC webinar in early 2021. “And that’s a principle by which we all stand and should play out throughout everything that we do and talk about.”
After the investigation by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg found a “racist and sexist culture” at VMI and called for change, Daniel criticized the findings as flawed, arguing they were not based on enough data or survey results. He has been especially offended by VMI’s embrace of “equity.”
At a PAC meeting that was live-streamed in November, Daniel told attendees that “equity” is different from “equality,” and claimed it was linked to “Marxist philosophies” and “critical race theory.”
“We don’t have any problem with diversity ... VMI’s always embraced diversity,” Daniel told the crowd in Richmond. “We don’t have any problem with inclusion, VMI’s always embraced inclusion.”
VMI says on its website that the equity component of its DEI program means, “recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to address historical and existing discrimination.”
Wins’s close friend and senior-year roommate, Davis Estes — who ran track with Daniel and attended his wedding — said Daniel and the PAC are demonizing equity.
“In my estimation, the PAC’s long-term fear is that VMI will no longer cater primarily to young white males, and white male enrollment will decline and be overshadowed by minority and female matriculation,” said Estes, 59, a Black former financial adviser who lives in Richmond. “They will promote DEI and any cultural changes the superintendent fosters as critical race theory and as the boogeyman poised to destroy VMI. They will utilize conservative print and radio media to promote their fight against change and maintain themselves as victims.”
‘Defender of legacies’
It was Daniel’s final moment as class agent. His column for the VMI alumni magazine reminisced about the class reunion in August when several 1985-ers visited Lexington, played golf and floated down the nearby Maury River.
“No other class does what ‘85 does — not even close,” he wrote late last year.
But he said he’d been asked by a VMI friend whether his duties as class agent conflicted with his role as chairman of the Spirit of VMI.
“I have done my level best to keep this job (VMI class agent ‘85) separated and segregated from my other unpaid job (defender of legacies against unfair and unfounded assaults),” he wrote.
Still, he’d decided he should step down as 1985 class agent: “So, there it is, fellows and friends and fans of ‘85. These are my last class notes.”
For Daniel, the Spirit of VMI took precedence.