Rebel flag still flies, still means racism

Symbol: Moving from Baltimore to Arkansas, an African-American woman is shocked to discover the devotion of Southerners to a relic of a lost war.

August 22, 1999|By Deborah L. Wright

WHEN I LEFT Baltimore 2 1/2 years ago to live in Hot Springs, Ark., I looked forward to slowing my pace, spending time with extended family and learning about the New South.

It didn't take long for me to discover that little about the South is new.

My first lesson in Southern living came a few weeks after I arrived in this tourist town of about 13,000 people.

I was driving along Central Avenue, the main drag, just beyond the shops that cater to people who flock here for hot mineral baths, horse racing and other attractions.

To my immediate right, I saw something that startled me. The Confederate flag was flying in a tiny grass square that had been set aside to commemorate the Southern role in the Civil War.

My journalistic juices got the best of me. I rounded the corner and parked my car to get a closer look. To my amazement, not only was the flag flying, it was sitting next to a monument to Confederate soldiers.

I'm an African-American who was born in Chicago, covered Ku Klux Klan activity in Florida and reported on education in Baltimore. I had heard about Southern cities and states in which the Confederate flag was still flown, but I had never visited or lived in a place where a patch of land was dedicated to honor the memory of those who had enslaved my ancestors.

I have come to realize that there remain profound differences in racial attitudes in this region of the country, compared with the climate above the Mason-Dixon line.

Don't get me wrong. Much of Dixie has changed for the better, but much still needs to change.

It boils down to values. Although incidents of racial intolerance occur in the North, Northerners generally accept that racism is wrong. In some parts of the South, some people take pride in being aggressively intolerant of people of color. They proudly talk about "the war," which in the South means the Civil War.

Some Southerners relish the role their ancestors played in the war to preserve slavery. The deep-rooted and rebellious intolerance that led the South to secede from the Union in the 1860s is kept alive in the 1990s by the Confederate flag.

In this city that flies the flag and hosts an annual Civil War re-enactment, there exists a climate that supports many of the old notions prevalent during the slave era. Most notably, there remain vestiges of the old slave-master mentality that hurts both races because neither group is free to reach its potential.

Earlier this year, a cross was burned on the lawn of a young black mother in Hot Springs. One of the three young male suspects allegedly wore a bandanna with the image of the Confederate flag. Police reportedly declined to take remnants of the burned cross to the state crime lab for analysis.

In this city where a monument has been built to honor Confederate soldiers, I have been the victim of more incidents of racial intolerance than I could have imagined possible in such a short time.

While I was browsing at a tourist show, a white man shoved me so hard he nearly knocked me down. Why? Because I'm black and female, and I was in his way. I hadn't done anything to him, so those are the only reasons I can think of. He offered no apology, and the act had to be deliberate because he shoved me with both hands.

Once, I had to file a police report when someone began leaving sexually suggestive country music messages on my answering machine. The suspect was an obnoxious delivery man who signaled his intentions with wandering eyes and not-so-subtle comments.

Last month, I was awakened from a sound sleep by someone who was screaming racial epithets outside my bedroom window.

Perhaps these incidents could have happened in any city. I don't want to appear to be knocking just my adopted home. Overall, it is a lovely community.

But I strongly believe that these kinds of incidents flourish in places where racial intolerance is acceptable.

Shortly after I noticed the Confederate flag flying in the heart of town, I called the local president of the Sons of the Confederacy. At the time, I was working on a free-lance article on life in the South. I wanted to find out why certain Southerners are fixated on flying an outdated flag.

I was told that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but economics -- the South merely wanted to preserve its agriculture-based economy.

Hogwash! This explanation fails to acknowledge that the pre-cotton gin economy of Arkansas and other Southern states was built on the backs of black people who were forced to work the land. You can't separate the economics of the institution of slavery from the enslaved people who were used to prop up the economy.

If the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racial intolerance, why does the KKK Web site encourage the "white brother" to continue to fly it?

I also noticed the Confederate flag on display in the window of a restaurant that is located in a predominantly white, low-income neighborhood that advertises "Southern Cooking." I haven't stopped there for lunch.

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