Museum's exhibit traces history of Confederate flag DATELINE: RICHMOND, VA.

May 30, 1993|By Brigid Schulte | Brigid Schulte,Knight-Ridder News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- More than a century after the Confederate flag was furled in battle for the last time, the distinctive blue St. Andrew's cross on a field of red is still a loaded symbol.

To many white southerners who see it flying over state capitols, as in South Carolina, the flag is a romantic memorial to heroism and a lost cause. To the Lithuanians and East Germans who waved it during the tumultuous last days of communism, it is the sign of the underdog, the rebel.

But for most African Americans, the Confederate flag is a symbol of oppression, slavery and racist opposition to the struggle for civil rights. To the Ku Klux Klan, Skinheads and Aryan Nation, it means white supremacy.

Now, for the first time, all these factions have come together in one room in a new exhibit, the "Embattled Emblem," at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, the old Confederate capital.

The exhibit traces the history of the flag, its use in battle, and, perhaps more important, how it has become woven into the fabric of modern American culture, appearing on everything from beachtowels and matchbooks to the January cover of Penthouse magazine.

The exhibit is opening as controversy over the 125-year-old flag continues to make headlines: Alabama and Georgia struggling over removing the symbol from the top of their capitol domes; Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., taking on Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to reject a 95-year-old Confederate design patent; and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder ordering the emblem removed from a National Guard unit.

But the exhibit offers no point of view on the flag and whether it has a place in modern society. In fact, it asks for yours. Survey forms are placed next to an audio tape that gives equal time to the divergent opinions of leaders from the NAACP, KKK, American Civil Liberties Union and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"Our exhibit cannot and was not intended to make a decision," said Malinda Collier, museum collections manager.

"For many people, the flag represents chattel slavery. For many, it represents the valor and heroism of the individual soldiers. We want people to come and examine their own views."

"We've got two rights here," said Michael S. Kogan, a New Jersey philosophy professor with southern roots who is underwriting the $10,000 exhibit. "I can try to understand the other side and come to a compromise."

But Ralph Hutchins, an African-American cab driver in Richmond and an avid Civil War buff, sees little room for compromise.

"When I see someone with a Confederate flag in the back of their car, I stay away," he said. "I know we won't see things eye to eye."

Earl T. Shinhoster, NAACP Southeast regional director who has led the fight to remove the flag from public buildings, said it is time to relegate it to museums. "Public symbols should reflect all people," he said.

But Mr. Kogan, whose great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy, sees the flag as an icon of rebel romance. The War Between the States, he says, was fought for states' rights and the freedom to secede from the union, not for slavery.

The only racism associated with the flag, in Mr. Kogan's view, is because it was "grabbed by yahoos" like the Klan.

But historians such as John Coski, who works at the museum, say the states' rights argument begs the question: the states' right to do what?

"It boils down in that mix to slavery," he said. "The South has to come to grips with the slavery in its past.

"But if we ask the South to look at the past objectively, which includes the offensive parts, then we're going to have to ask the people raised in the Lincoln hero tradition to do the same thing.

"Emancipating slaves did not become an objective until the third year of the war.

"I dearly believe it's good for everyone to approach the flag objectively. . . . Because that's where the common ground lies. And with understanding comes tolerance."

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