Sunday, January 23, 2000

Confederate flag continues to divide


Is it all about states' rights, or segregation?

BY MARK CURNUTTE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        People in South Carolina who want the Confederate battle flag to fly atop the state capitol say it represents their heritage.

        “It doesn't represent my heritage,” said George Deas, an African-American who lives in Forest Park and is from Florence, S.C. “The Confederate flag is a symbol of oppression and repression and has been for some time.”

INFOGRAPHIC
Comparing Confederate flags
        In Greater Cincinnati, where North met South during the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag doesn't fly above public buildings. But the flag sometimes is displayed on private homes, vehicles and clothing.

        Flag supporters here and in the South say the flag is a symbol of states' constitutional rights to oppose unwanted expansion and influence of the federal government. But that argument is lost on most people here and throughout the nation, said Gene Beaupre, a Xavier University political scientist and local observer.

        “The flag today conjures up images of lines of troops firing at each other and blacks bent over in cotton fields,” Mr. Beaupre said. “You don't see two-hour movies on TV on Sunday nights about states' rights and federalism. You see movies about slavery and the Civil War.”

        The red flag with the blue cross also was seen here Saturday afternoon, when the Ku Klux Klan unfurled the Confed erate battle flag and the U.S. flag during a rally at Fountain Square.

        “They want slavery again, and that's what the (Confederate) flag means to me,” said Alberta Brown, who is an African-American from the West End. She watched and listened in falling snow from behind a police barricade.

        So while the flag debate is focused on South Carolina — 46,000 people, organized by the NAACP, marched on the South Carolina Statehouse last week to demand the flag be taken down — it's an issue that clear ly resonates nationwide.

        The Confederate battle-flag debate has entered the presidential race. Candidates have been asked what they think the flag symbolizes and whether it should be taken down in South Carolina.

        “It's simple,” said John K. Alexander, a University of Cincinnati history professor. “Flags are powerful symbols because people care about them. They respond emotionally to flags. As long as South Carolina continues to fly the flag, it will continue to be a volatile political issue.”

        The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, other civil-rights groups and many African-Americans say the flag is about slavery and racial intimidation.

        The Confederate battle flag both incites and inspires around here, too.

        “The Confederate flag is a relic of the past, an inglorious past,” said the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Greater New Light Baptist Church in North Avondale, who led the battle to desegregate Birmingham, Ala., in the late 1950s and early '60s.

        “As a relic of the past. It should not fly in the face of present goodwill,” he said. “It should be in a museum where other things of the past are viewed — old cars, old planes.”

        Karl Hundley, of Northside, is white and has nine ancestors from Virginia and North Carolina who fought at Gettysburg. Two died, he said. Five were wounded.

        “It's the flag so many of my family fought under,” said Mr. Hundley, 47, a professional musician who had a Confederate battle-flag patch on the jacket he wore to anti-war and civil-rights rallies in Washington, D.C., and in Cincinnati.

        “I never had a problem,” he said. “I marched with black Southerners behind that flag to protest the war the day (Richard) Nixon was inaugurated in 1969.

        “The battle flag is a symbol of rebellion. It's anti-authority.”

        To his chagrin, hate groups such as the KKK adopted the Confederate battle flag. The Klan is one of 500 similar groups that use the flag liberally, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil-rights group that tracks extremist movements.

        “I understand why some people want it to come down from the capitol in South Carolina,” Mr. Hundley said. “But I am concerned that the ultimate agenda is to eliminate it from Confederate memorials, get rid of it altogether.”

Civil War flags vary
        The NAACP isn't trying to ban the Confederate battle flag. Because the flag is not an official emblem of the state, the organization said, it opposes it flying in a sovereign context on the capitol dome.

        In protest of the South Carolina legislature's refusal to take down the flag, the NAACP launched a tourism boycott of the state.

        South Carolina started to fly to flag in 1962 to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. The battle flag — a blue, X-shaped cross containing 13 white stars spread across a red background — was adapted from the first Confederate national flag.

        The Confederate States of America's national flag, which made its debut in 1861 at the dawn of the four-year Civil War — looked too much like the opposing U.S. flag for battlefield use.

        That national flag, known as the Stars and Bars, featured two thick red stripes, a white middle stripe and a blue field with white stars in the upper left-hand corner. It initially had six stars in the field to represent the first six states to secede from the union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee also later joined the Confederacy.

        South Carolina has never taken down the flag, which led to the NAACP-led protest and boycott.

        National groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans say if the battle flag is lost, other symbols of the Confederacy will also vanish.

        Some local members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy declined to be identified or comment on the flag controversy.

        Carole Rauf, a retired teacher from Montgomery and north Florida native, said she respects the Confederate flag because it serves to remind people “that it is the nature of any government to impose its will, regardless of the consequences.”

        She said Article X of the U.S. Bill of Rights provides for states' rights.

        “There is no article in the Constitution which bans secession,” Ms. Rauf said. “Several states, including Virginia, had incorporated in their own constitutions that they reserved the right to secede from the United States if they believed that statehood was not in their best interest.”

        As a person who spent her first 16 years living near the Alabama border — she moved to Cincinnati in 1963 — Ms. Rauf also understands why people in the South cling to the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of their heritage.

        “Southerners are Southerners first and Americans second,” she said.

        There's much truth in her statement, said Christopher Phillips, a University of Cincinnati history professor and Civil War expert.

        “The war defines them,” he said of Southerners.

        But, Mr. Phillips said, South Carolina is not flying the actual battle flag, which was square. The state flies a rectangular-shaped flag that was developed after the Civil War.

Rebel mascots popular
        Kentucky and Missouri, which did not secede, were represented on the battle flag and later national flags because they had de facto Confederate governments. The southern orientation of Kentucky has held on for more than a century.

        Some high schools in the state still have the nickname Rebels, Boone County and Owen County high schools in Northern Kentucky among them.

        In Western Kentucky's Todd County, the use of Confederate flags and rebel mascots has ignited debate in the region that claims Jefferson Davis, the Confederate States' president, as a native son.

        Boone County High School stopped using the Confederate flag at athletic events in the late 1980s, largely in deference to black athletes.

        Students there are not allowed to wear clothing bearing the Confederate flag to school, either. Permits for the student parking lot also prohibit the display of the Confederate flag in vehicles.

        Owen County also prohibits the Confederate battle flag on clothing, said Demetrius Watson, 18, a senior who is one of only a few African-Americans in the school.

        She has asked some classmates who like the flag what it means to them.

        “They say, "No, I'm not a racist,'” Ms. Watson said. “They say it's their free speech. But as an African-American, from my perspective, when I see it, it's intimidating. It's about hatred.”

        George Deas, the Forest Park man born in South Carolina, stops short of saying he'll refuse to visit his home state. He has a lot of family there.

        But the South Carolina State University graduate has been troubled for many years by the sight of the Confederate battle flag atop the dome in Columbia.

        “When I grew up in a segregated school, I was taught to pledge allegiance to the flag that symbolized a country that was "indivisible,'” Mr. Deas said. “The Confederate flag suggests division.”

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