The Excuse of Ignorance

April 24, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Symbols and what they stand for have us constantly wrestling with ourselves over what's legal, what's logical and what's right. It's easy to blame judges for the confusion.

In Fairfax County, across the river from Washington, a judge rules that the Virginia law against cross-burning is unconstitutional. In Greenville, South Carolina, a federal judge tells students they can wear the Confederate flag to school, but only after the school year is over.

Historically, the burning cross is a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan, of racial hatred and violence. But the Fairfax judge maintains it's just a form of political expression, protected by the free-speech guarantee of the First Amendment.

She bought the argument advanced by the lawyer for a 16-year-old white student who burned a cross outside Fairfax High School during a flare-up of racial unpleasantness last year. Cross-burning, said the lawyer, is just like flag-burning, recently guaranteed constitutional protection by the Supreme Court.

Emotionally, you and I know it's not the same, and so do the civil libertarians. But it's hard to make that case legally. One side says a burning cross is understood as a threat of violence. The other says that's history, it's not so any more. The debate degenerates into a childish exchange: Is so. Is not.

That argument seems futile, so the American Civil Liberties Union is sticking to its traditional First Amendment absolutism, shrugging off the judge's decision and saying it won't diminish minority rights. But the NAACP, concerned about civil rights more than civil liberties, is understandably unhappy. Its spokesman says the county court ruling is just another example of the way minority rights are being rolled back by political conservatives.

The judge in South Carolina neatly avoided making anybody on either side happy when he decided a suit brought by parents of students suspended for wearing Confederate flags to school. Since 1970, when Southern schools were in the heat of court-ordered desegregation, displaying that flag at school has been banned as a provocative insult to black students.

Not surprisingly, the more than 100 white students who wore the flags contended they were just showing pride in their Southern heritage.

That might make John C. Calhoun proud, and James F. Byrnes, too, for whom their school is named. After being U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice and secretary of State, Byrnes went back to South Carolina to become governor and fight for states' rights in the 1950s. That political fight encouraged what church-bombers did during the civil-rights struggle of the Sixties -- and that's the Southern heritage honored by ignorant kids who wear the Confederate flag and burn crosses in the Nineties.

Millions of Americans have a Southern heritage, and in it there are many reasons for pride. Three of my great-grandfathers were wounded in the Civil War, and one of them lived through the horrors of the prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. My great-great-grandfather was captured at Gettysburg and died a

Federal prisoner at Fort Delaware.

I have researched their lives and their service to the Confederacy. I respect them as soldiers and as men, especially the way those who survived went home to North Carolina and worked through hard times to raise families of loyal, upright citizens. I daresay they died loving this country as much as any Yankee veteran ever did.

They fought to defend their homes against Federal invasion, or at least that's what they were told. For that, I can admire them. They also fought to preserve slavery, although only one of them, to my knowledge, ever owned a slave. For that, it is hard to admire anyone.

Yet it is just that aspect of the ''Southern heritage'' that is honored by those who flaunt Confederate flags and burn crosses in tense times today. Anybody of any age who burns a cross knows what it means. Conceivably, the 100-plus teen-agers who wore those flags in South Carolina had not thought it through that far. But the court suit was brought by their parents; ignorance is an excuse only for the young.

The judge there said, ''I don't think any of you have the right to taunt blacks or any other race. If that Confederate flag is a symbol of racism to the blacks, then put it away.''

Precisely. The problem isn't judges, it's parents.

* Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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