From New Orleans to Orange County, Civil War symbols have caused good people to choose sides and start sniping.
From 1861 to 2017, Confederate emblems have provoked pride and anger, engendered loyalty and fear.
Monuments to the likes of Robert E. Lee and Silent Sam, UNC’s Confederate soldier, have been debated, debased and destroyed. Flags have been waved on battlefields and in people’s faces.
In many cases, Confederate flags and monuments have been lumped together, two problems in need of the same solution.
But a monument is one thing. A flag is something else entirely.
You can drive past a monument without noticing it. Civil War sites can be reinterpreted to tell a fuller, truer picture of what a place or structure means historically or socio-politically. Not so for flags. It’s impossible to ignore a classmate sitting next to you wearing a rebel flag cap. We can’t place signs in our communities to explain the meaning of Confederate flags on the T-shirts of some of our citizens.
That’s why, after a concerned parent noticed students being sent home from school for wearing short shorts but not Confederate flags, the Orange County Schools Board of Education was correct to propose banning “racially intimidating” symbols on shirts, buttons, patches, jewelry and the like.
Parents, students and school administrators here in Orange County are debating displays of the flag on clothing and accessories for good reason: Outside of some rare, narrow historical contexts, many members of our community can only see the flag as menacing.
After the Orange County schools’ preliminary approval of a ban of “racially intimidating” symbols on clothing, the board has requested the policy be rewritten to include more than race-related symbols. As a result, the ban on Confederate flags wasn’t passed in order to wait for a broader policy proposal.
Our students should study in environments free of intimidating messages of all kinds. Still, the board could have passed the ban on racially tinged clothing and then addressed oppression of other groups. The flag has its own long, deep and difficult history.
Some argue banning the flag disregards the sacrifices of distant relatives who fought for the South, but whatever it stood for in 1861 is no longer the issue. The flag of the Confederate “Lost Cause” was brought out of the mothballs in the mid-20th century in response to a brand new lost cause: the defiance of federal laws telling states to desegregate schools and to enforce civil and voting rights.
In the early 1950s, The New York Times reported unprecedented popular interest in the Confederate battle flag. It was sparked by the segregationist States Rights Party – the Dixiecrats – whose members revived the flag’s use after walking out of the Democratic National Convention promising Washington would not “force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.”
The use of the flag as a symbol of civil rights opposition – and worse – only grew from there. “The Confederate flag … means one thing to the Klansman: Here is a friend of ‘the cause,’” reported John Herbers in a 1965 New York Times story on a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
But you don’t have to travel back in history to know the flag is a symbol of racial intimidation. I felt it journeying to South Carolina to visit my oldest son in college earlier this year. In the two days I was in our neighboring state, I saw more Confederate battle flags than I’ve seen in 10 years living in North Carolina.
As soon as I crossed the state line, I passed several trucks and vans in the median of I-85, circled like covered wagons, all displaying large Confederate flags from their roofs and beds. It was a grim Palmetto State welcome.
As I continued past rural homes and through small downtowns, I saw dozens of Confederate flags hanging from storefronts and residences, mounted on fence posts and on a 25-foot roadside flagpole that dangled over cars traveling a rural county highway.
There was no mistaking the message – it felt like harassment, and I as a white male visiting from North Carolina wasn’t the primary target. I tried to imagine what black South Carolinians or out-of-state students at my son’s college must feel about the ominous, omnipresent flags looming around every corner like spectres.
Driving in South Carolina, the few American flags I saw flying from fence posts and front porches brought a sense of relief. I don’t usually think of the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of defiance, but in that neck of the woods, I could only think of it as delivering an inclusive message: “We’re not Confederates. We’re Americans.”
That’s a cause we all should be able to get behind.
Paul Isom teaches journalism at N.C. State University.