Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill panel debates Confederate flag in schools

Ronda Taylor Bullock remembers the table at the end of the street.

The vendors set up their wares each year at Old Fashion Day in Goldston, the Chatham County town of about 300 people where she grew up.

“They had flags, knives, belt buckles, pens – anything you can think of,” Bullock said. All of it bearing images of the Confederate battle flag.

“And I remember the sick feeling that sat in the pit of my stomach when I saw this,” she said. “Something wasn’t right about what they were selling.”

Bullock shared that memory at a panel discussion, “Confederate flag: We need to talk about it,” held Saturday by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.

The event came a day after New Orleans on Friday removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle, the last of four Confederate monuments removed under a 2015 City Council vote.

In Orange County, a group of parents, students and community members plans a “Kids March and Speak Out for a Hate Free OC” at 6 p.m. Monday at Gravelly Hill Middle School in Efland. The march continues a five-month campaign by the Hate-Free Schools Coalition to ban the Confederate flag from student clothing and Orange County Schools property.

“Our goal is to create a process to begin a conversation about what kind of community we want to have,” Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP President Anna Richards said of Saturday’s forum, which attracted about 60 people to the Hargraves Community Center.

Supporters of the flag often say it represents their Southern heritage.

But panelist Reginald Hildebrand, a professor emeritus of history at UNC, said it is impossible to separate the flag from the cause it represented.

He cited The Cornerstone Speech by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in Savannah, Georgia, shortly before the Confederacy fired upon Ft. Sumter to begin the Civil War.

“Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said.

“It is certainly possible to argue the Civil War was about more than one thing,” Hildebrand said. “But in this case it would be hard to argue slavery was not the key issue.”

UNC law professor Al Brophy worries that banning Confederate symbols risks forgetting about racism and the Jim Crow South, but he said a “very, very compelling” case can be made for removing Confederate symbols from public settings.

“Whatever people who are flying the Confederate flag think about their heritage – and I don’t doubt they’re not thinking of slavery – the problem is the flag for all the rest of us has become a symbol of white supremacy and that is the message it sends,” he said.

But Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said the Confederate flag is a form of expression, and as such protected speech.

The flag is “loathsome,” “abhorrent” and “repugnant,” she said.

But others hold different opinions, she said. The law and court rulings already limit speech: you can’t defame someone or incite a riot, she said. And schools can limit speech that substantially disrupts the school environment, she said.

Bans on Confederate flags have also led to bans on Malcolm X T-shirts, she said.

“The First Amendment is really easy when you both agree,” Anderson said. “As you think about where you want to go, look at how much you want to put in that basket and tread carefully.”

But Bullock said allowing the Confederate flag, especially in schools, under the guise of free speech sends a message to black children, the same one she felt on the streets of Goldston growing up.

“Are we not communicating that students of color’s pain doesn’t matter?” she asked. “That the feelings they get in the pit of their stomach, that those pains are invalid, that they are indeed inferior, that black lives actually don’t matter?”

Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950;

Instagram: @mark_schultz_nando

Coming up

The Orange County Human Relations Commission and the Hate Free Schools Coalition will hold a Town Hall Meeting, “A Conversation about the Confederate Flag in Orange County Schools,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 8, at the Whitted Building, 300 W. Tryon St., Hillsborough.