Confederate flag stirs passions in state where war began

July 31, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Some say this is about nothing more than a flag, a piece of trivia and cloth with 13 white stars, two blue stripes and a red field.

Others say it is about history.

Some say the flag represents breakaway states that enslaved millions.

Others say it symbolizes states' rights, and besides, the Union side had slaves, too.

Some say the flag is associated with an army crushed on the field of battle.

Others say it honors the gallantry of men and women who fought and died for what they believed.

Some say it's about race.

Others say it's about heritage.

More than a century after the end of the Civil War, the flying of the Confederate flag continues to both bedevil and beguile the American South. From state to state and year to year, the debate recedes, then rages, unleashing profound feelings of what it means to be a Southerner, both black and white.

Now, the debate has come to South Carolina.

Atop the dome of the South Carolina State House, just beneath the U.S. and state flags, the old Confederate Navy Jack flutters ++ in the breeze. A lot of people, including the mayor and many of the city's business leaders, want the flag taken down, now. A lot of other people, a band of traditionalists and Civil War enthusiasts, want the flag to stay right where it is.

Caught in the middle are two tour guides, Myra Cunningham and Lisa Addison. Each day they lead school children, families and tour groups through the ornate hallways of the State House. They talk of the building's history and its grandeur.

But all the tourists want to talk about is the flag, the Confederate flag. "There are no fence-sitters," Miss Cunningham said.

The tour guides don't offer opinions. Just facts:

That the flag was one of several designs used by the Confederate States of America, the stars representing the 11 states of the Confederacy plus two more the budding nation hoped to call its own. That South Carolina only began flying the banner atop the State House in 1962, ostensibly to celebrate a Civil War centennial but also in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. That hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have adopted the flag as a symbol.

The tourists listen and nod.

A political compromise to take the flag down from the dome but keep it on the State House grounds beside a Confederate war memorial collapsed at the 11th hour of a legislative session earlier this month.

Eight days ago, there was a march on Myrtle Beach organized by the state NAACP to dump the flag. There was a countermarch as hundreds waved Confederate flags. The air was filled with racial epithets.

Hanging over all now is the threat of an economic boycott launched by the state's NAACP -- if the flag is not removed before Labor Day.

Still, the flag flies and interest in the issue soars.

For less than $20, constituents of South Carolina House and Senate members can receive a Confederate flag that has flown over the State House. It used to be easy to get one. Now, there is a waiting list: One thousand, six hundred names, and counting.

History and symbolism, for good or bad, remain powerful forces in the South. Dr. William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, said the flag issue is anything but trivial.

According to Dr. Ferris, the Confederate flag "is a divisive symbol that for blacks symbolizes the flag of their former slave owners. And for whites, it symbolizes a history which is gone. Using the flag is -- by certain groups -- an attempt to rekindle an old world that no longer exists. Like all myths, it is a highly charged emotional image."

The flag was tucked away after the Civil War, but it got a big boost as a 20th-century symbol with the release of the motion picture "Gone With the Wind" in 1939. Soon, Southern soldiers bound for battle in World War II were waving the Confederate flag.

Now, the flag is used by truckers, bikers, football fans and Southern rock groups. And it is used by politicians.

The backlash began in 1983 when black students at the University of Mississippi forced the school to drop the Confederate flag as its official symbol. Alabama and Mississippi would soon eliminate official flying of the flag. But a 1992 bid to remove the Confederate patch incorporated in the Georgia flag was unsuccessful. The issue is sure to come up again as the 1996 Summer Olympics approach in Atlanta.

Now, South Carolina stands as the only state to fly the flag above its Capitol. For Dr. William Gibson, a Greenville dentist and president of the state NAACP, that is simply intolerable. Earlier this year, he watched as a black South African soldier took down an old flag and replaced it with a new flag for a new multiracial country.

Dr. Gibson, a great-grandson of slaves, said those images gave him the idea to push for removal of the Confederate flag here.

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