In the weeks before their West Point graduation, a group of black female cadets gathered on the steps of a barracks at the U.S. Military Academy to participate in a campus tradition of taking “old corps” photos that mimic snapshots of their 19th century predecessors.
They snapped several pictures. In one of them, they raised their fists.
That image made it online, where it sparked an angry backlash. The school, which has been trying to diversify its predominantly white and male student body, has opened an inquiry, thrusting it into a debate on the gesture’s meaning.
Were the women simply celebrating their remarkable achievement? Or where they making some kind of political statement, which the academy prohibits?
West Point’s director of public affairs, Lt. Col. Christopher Kasker, said the school is investigating the photo. “We can confirm that the cadets in this photo are members of the U.S. Military Academy’s Class of 2016,” Kasker said in a statement. “Academy officials are conducting an inquiry into the matter.”
The cadets, who are among 1,000 set to graduate May 21, have not spoken publicly. But some who know them say that while they made a mistake, they did not deserve the backlash — which includes accusations that the women were expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The criticism has been stoked by a former soldier, John Burk, who blasted the photo on his blog with the headline, “Racism Within West Point.” Burke argued that the cadets appeared to have violated military rules against making political gestures. “This overt display of the black lives matter movement is not, in itself wrong, but to do so while in uniform is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the USMA stands for,” Burk wrote.
That, in turn, prompted a wave of support for the cadets.
“I know these young women. They love West Point and they love the Army,” said Brenda Sue Fulton, a 1980 graduate and chairwoman of the academy’s Board of Visitors.
Fulton, stressing that she was speaking as a former student, said she tweeted another photo of the cadets last month because it illustrated “the pride, unity and determination” that West Point represents.
She also said she wouldn’t have shared the raised-fists photo because “I am old enough to know that it would be interpreted negatively by many white observers. Unfortunately, in their youth and exuberance, it appears they didn’t stop to think that it might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph.”
The raised fist is so common, and has been used in such a wide variety of political and cultural contexts — union organizers, triumphant athletes, civil rights activists, white extremists, socialists, feminists, Beyonce’s halftime performance at this year’s Super Bowl — that it stirs a variety of interpretations.
Mary Tobin, a black woman who graduated West Point in 2003, said she saw the cadets’ photo and knew immediately there would be trouble, because when black people use it, it is viewed as “Black people hate white people.”
She wrote on Facebook about her own struggle with being one of the few blacks at West Point, and her struggle to assimilate.
Tobin praised the school for trying to become more responsive to issues related to race, gender, sexual orientation and sex assault.
“With that being said,” she continued, “if these women are crucified on the altar of cultural misunderstanding and youthful zeal, then we will lose an incredible teachable moment for every graduate, current cadet, and future cadet.”
This article first appeared on NBCNews.com.