Symbol of reverence or racism


Flag: Southern states grapple with the messages conveyed by preserving a Confederate emblem on their flags.

April 20, 2001|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An article in the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger on Wednesday began this way: "Mississippians showed as much resistance Tuesday to removing the Confederate battle flag as they did when they repelled Union troops at Vicksburg 138 years ago."

Thus again was perpetuated the idea that the contemporary defenses of that flag are all rooted in reverence for those who fought under it in the 1860s.

For some people the reverence is real. Shelby Foote, the Mississippi novelist and Civil War historian, said after the Tuesday vote overwhelmingly in favor of keeping a version of the Confederate battle flag, "I think a lot of people like me think that flag stands for something that they stand for, and that their forebears stood for, never mind its definitions of slavery."

It's obvious that for many involved in the fight in recent years, slavery had nothing to do with retaining a state flag that includes an emblem of the Confederacy. But it's also obvious that what has been called slavery's evil twin, racism, did.

And it is obvious that the bloody conflict of the 1860s had less to do with rallying around the battle flag than the sometimes bloody conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s did.

One of the leaders of the successful 1956 effort to incorporate the Confederate battle flag onto the Georgia state flag admitted that last winter, when Georgia's legislature was debating whether to replace that flag with a less controversial one.

Denmark Groover, who in 1956 was the governor's floor leader in the Georgia House, testified during committee hearings this year on the new flag.

"I presented the matter to the House [in 1956]," he said, "and probably used some rhetoric indicating that the new flag was to symbolize our defiance of the action of the federal judiciary on matter involving race."

People who remember those days say there is no "probably" to it.

Mississippi's state flag pre-dates that. The state changed its official flag from one bearing a magnolia to the present (and future) one in 1894. But it was not until 1948 that it began to symbolize the state's political assertiveness.

In that year the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention walked out, in protest of the party's pro-civil rights plank. Waving the Confederate battle flag, these "Dixiecrats" held a convention of their own in Alabama, with a few delegates from other Southern states.

Their platform said, "We stand for the segregation of the races." One leader of the Dixiecrats said that only segregation could prevent "mongrelization."

In 1954, the Supreme Court found segregated education to be unconstitutional. Assertiveness that had been getting more and more intense soon became characterized by violence.

A reminder of that is currently in the news. In Birmingham, Ala., Thomas E. Blanton Jr. is on trial in the bombing of a church there in 1963 in which four black children were killed. A witness said she saw Blanton at the church the night before. There was a Confederate battle flag flying from his car antenna.

By 1963 that battle flag had become an emblem of a movement that not only was not opposed by some public leaders in the region but was encouraged by them. Alabama Gov. George Wallace raised the flag over the statehouse in Montgomery to protest a visit to the state by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Before that in 1962, there was a somewhat similarly inspired raising of the battle flag over South Carolina's statehouse. It, too, was followed by racist-related violence.

Southern violence began before the 1960s. In 1958, for example, in quick succession a school in Clinton, Tenn., and then a synagogue in Atlanta were dynamited. "The Confederate Underground" claimed credit for the latter.

That prompted a column by Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill that would win him a Pulitzer Prize:

"The Confederacy and the men who led it are revered by millions [but] for too many years now we have seen the Confederate flag become the property of men not fit to tie the shoes of those who fought for it. Some of these have been merely childish and immature. Others have perverted and commercialized the flag by making [it] a symbol of hate and bombings."

Many Southern political leaders today are outspoken on the need to get the Confederate flag and its symbolism behind them. The past two governors of Georgia advocated changing the state flag, which was finally accomplished this year. The governor of South Carolina signed a bill last year moving the Confederate battle flag from atop the statehouse.

Alabama took its battle flag down in 1992 for repairs to its statehouse. Before it could go back up, the courts ruled that only the official state and U.S. flags could fly there.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi supported the proposed new flag for his state. One former governor, William Waller, supported keeping the old flag. Another former governor, William Winter, who chaired the commission that deM-W signed the proposed new flag, favored a change.

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