The controversial photo of 16 black female cadets raising their fists was just one of dozens of images the women took as part of a long-held West Point tradition, according to Brenda Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point grad who chairs the U.S. Military Academy's Board of Visitors.
West Point officials are continuing to investigate the image, which has been criticized online in recent days for allegedly violating Defense Department policy concerning political activities while in uniform.
Fulton, back on April 27, had posted another image from the shoot via Twitter. This image is clearly not political and was even retweeted by Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy.
The women were posing for an "Old Corps photo," Fulton told Army Times, "a long-held tradition at the Academy."
"Different teams and groups get together on their own to mimic the high-collar, ultra-serious, photos of 19th century cadets," she explained of the tradition.
Fulton knows some of the women personally.
"When I spent time with these cadets and heard them tell their stories and laugh and joke with each other, there's no doubt in my mind how much they love West Point, they love the Army and they support each other."
But would Fulton, a former Army captain and long-time diversity advocate for the military, have tweeted the raised-fist photo?
"I would not have re-tweeted the raised-fist photo because I am well aware that our culture views a black fist very differently from a white fist," she said. "I knew it was their expression of pride and unity, but 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."
Sue Fulton is a graduate of West Point and a former captain.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Sue Fulton
She does not criticize academy officials for launching an inquiry.
"West Point is America's college. If there is a public uproar, however ill-motivated, the leaders feel their responsibility to the public is to get all the facts," she said.
Online commenters speculated the image may be connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, which also incorporates a raised fist in its messaging. The popular military fitness blog In the Arena helped share this message, attributing information to anonymous sources. The cadets also have a legion of online defenders, who say the photo has been taken out of context and that criticisms have been hate-fueled and racially-charged.
Fulton, speaking as a West Point alum, said she was dismayed to read such negative comments online, especially the In the Arena post from former soldier John Burk, whose sharp criticism served as a lightning rod.
"I am sorry that someone with a blog chose to display this one photo out of context, and to call them racists," said Fulton, who is the first female West Point grad to ever serve as chair of the academy's Board of Visitors.
Can they get in trouble?
The women may have run run afoul of West Point's Honor Code, or Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces, said Greg Greiner, a military law expert and partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm.
Even if the intent was not to make a political statement — for example, if "group think" set in or the cadets were just "messing around" — they could still be in trouble, Greiner explained.
"My experience with military justice and the way discipline is handled, is that intent doesn't always matter 100 percent," he said. "Sometimes the actions themselves are enough to bring discredit."
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, cadets could face charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, Greiner said. It depends on how much leadership felt "good order and discipline" had been violated, if at all.
"Leaders have a duty to say to themselves, do we want to create a problem for these young female officers that they're going to have for the rest of their careers?" he said.