A Rebel Cause: History: Confederate Memorial Day brings to the fore all the racist baggage of Dixie's flag, as well as the pride of those who are fighting to rehabilitate

June 01, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Heritage not Hatred. That's what the billboards and bumper stickers say; the Southern heritage of rebel soldiers, not the Klansman's burning hate.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy will carry that sentiment with them today on Confederate Hill, the piece of Loudon Park Cemetery where more than 600 soldiers are buried.

On that tree-shaded hill not too far from the burying ground of black men who fought for the Union, in a city once sympathetic to secession that is now 60 percent black, descendants of the Lost Cause will mark Confederate Memorial Day with solemn, dirge-like drum rolls, a Taps-like bugle call and a laying of wreaths at the base of Stonewall Jackson's time-worn statue.

Accompanying this procession will be the most visible -- and highly charged -- symbol of the rebel cause: the Confederate battle flag, an emblem that has become synonymous with racial hatred and political extremism. Whenever racial fears reach a white-hot temperature, the battle flag appears, loathed and loved, reviled and revered.

Now the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups want to rescue the flag, free it from the morass of race and hate and let it fly to commemorate the heroes of blood-soaked battlefields. That's why the billboards and bumper stickers say "Heritage not Hatred." The group has even adopted a resolution condemning the battle flag's use by those "who espouse political extremism or racial superiority."

Yet it remains our most volatile symbol. Viewing it is like taking a Rorschach test. You bring your history with you.

Carl Berenholtz, a Civil War re-enactor and member of the Col. Harry W. Gilmor camp, the local Confederate sons' chapter, does not equate the banner with slavery. When he looks at it, he thinks about his great-great uncle's valor and the sacrifice of soldiers.

James Forman Jr., whose father, James Sr., was a civil rights leader in the 1960s, can't find any bravery in the battle flag. When he looks at it, he thinks of slaves in chains, whippings, lynchings and the rabid crowds that fought integration.

Tony Horwitz, who has written in the New Yorker about a Tennessee murder case involving the flag, says the banner has "become kind of an all-purpose raised middle finger. . . . a symbol of defiance."

It took almost a century for the flag to accumulate the baggage it now carries.

It wasn't, as many people think, the national flag of the Confederacy. But rebel leaders seized on it after the first battle at Manassas, when they realized that the Stars and Bars too closely resembled the Union banner. After the war, veterans began hauling it out for reunions and Memorial Day celebrations.

For a long time, the battle flag was a historical artifact, revered in the white South, but rarely seen. The Ku Klux Klan preferred the American flag and the burning cross. On occasion a politician would bring it out if he had a connection to the Confederacy.

It was not until the 1940s, when the last living links to the Confederacy began to die, that the flag's transformation began. White Southern soldiers flew it during World War II as a sort of sectional identification, though government officials discouraged such displays. After the war, students at Ole Miss and the University of Virginia started waving it at football games. It turned up at the segregationist-minded Dixiecrat political convention of 1948.

No turning back

"It was a fad, sort of like coonskin caps and hula hoops. Everybody carried it, North and South," says John Coski, historian with the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. "By the mid-1950s there was no turning back. It was a major popular symbol."

It turned up on everything from a tourist's key chain to a roadside restaurant's throw-away place mat. Confederate groups tried to reverse the trend. Southern states enacted laws forbidding commercial use of the flag. Black editorial writers denounced its new popularity.

"They felt that it was a symbol of treason," says Coski, curator of "Embattled Emblem," an exhibit on the life and times of the Confederate battle flag. "Not hatred, mind you, but treason."

All that changed with the 1954 Brown decision. Segregationists and white supremacists wrapped themselves in the battle flag. States incorporated it into the flags flying over their capitols. George Wallace was cheered when he raised it in defiance of the federal government.

To millions, black and white, the flag became a symbol of racial division and hate.

Just last month people protesting the Klan-oriented Redneck Shop in Laurens, S.C., burned the battle flag. An Annapolis man flew it next to a Klan snowman he built in his yard this past winter. When the South Carolina legislature debated whether to continue flying it over the Capitol two years ago, a black man showed up dressed in chains and threatened to burn the flag. Angry whites told him to go back to Africa.

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