Southern Party says flag isn't racist

But the NAACP says Confederate flag is an exclusionary symbol

August 26, 1999|By Chris Burritt | Chris Burritt,Cox News Service

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The Confederate flag is rising again, this time as the symbol of a new political party that says it represents Southerners in the battle against declining morals, government intrusion and "cultural bigotry and oppression."

But critics of the Southern Party, which plans to unveil its national platform at a rally in Flat Rock, N.C., on Saturday, say the group's flag -- a historic Confederate government flag that incorporates the familiar Confederate battle flag -- discredits the group's political goal of reclaiming the South's sovereignty from the U.S. government.

"That, in and of itself, would serve as an exclusionary symbol for a lot of people," said George Allison, executive director of the North Carolina Conference of NAACP branches in Greensboro.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has renewed its attack on the Confederate battle flag, urging tourists to avoid South Carolina because the flag flies atop its Stat e House.

Critics say the red-and-blue battle flag -- also incorporated in Georgia's state flag -- is a racist reminder of slavery. Supporters say it pays tribute to the Confederacy and its fallen warriors.

The Southern Party claims the Confederate flag as the "most instantly and widely recognized symbol of Southern sovereignty, valor and independence."

Calling that message a "rhetorical change of great significance" in the flag debate, political observer John Shelton Reed questioned whether the Southern Party can change critics' minds.

"Any Southern nationalist movement, especially one that wraps itself in the Confederate flag, is going to be viewed with suspicion, given the historical record," said Reed, director of the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina. "But they are vehemently denying that connection."

More than 180 people from across the nation have signed up for the rally, according to the Southern Party. Formed in recent months, it espouses limited government, low taxes, an emphasis on God in public schools, and an end to South-bashing by "Washington and Hollywood elites."

Ultimately, the party hopes to elect candidates in 16 states to local and state offices. But if that grass-roots campaign fails to reverse what party leaders call a slide toward federal tyranny, the party would advocate creating a separate Southern nation.

Proponents say such a move, accomplished at the ballot box by voters of individual states, would return power to states. That's preferable to the "corrupt two-party system that fails to represent Southern interests in Washington," according to the party's Web site (www. southernparty.org).

"We are a party for all Southern people," Jerry Baxley, the Southern Party's first vice chairman, said in an interview Thursday. "We do not hold to the rancor of people running around and screaming, 'I do not like this group and I do not like that group.' "

On its Web site, the group distances itself from racial hate groups and decries such groups' "attempt to pervert the symbols of Southern freedom and valor into symbols of racial malice."

The Web site of the party's North Carolina chapter says "racists of ANY stripe, including the KKK and other white supremacist groups ... are NOT welcome" at the rally.

In defense of its flag, the party says the Confederate Congress adopted the "last official national flag of Dixie" in March 1865, a month after it allowed blacks to enlist as Confederate soldiers.

"For this reason, we believe it is a symbol that all Southerners should be able to embrace and support as our national symbol of independence and freedom," the Web page says.

Such ideas have run into criticism this summer as the party's officials have made public appearances around the South.

Baxley complained about one appearance in July on a talk-radio program in Gulfport, Miss., which he said resulted in "very hostile and, at times, exceedingly rude" reactions from callers and the show's hosts.

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