Symbol of Racism? : Confederate Flag: Battle Still Raging

Times Staff Writer

Whenever seven-term state Rep. Alvin Holmes looks up at the dome of the historic Alabama Statehouse here, his blood begins to boil.

The Confederate flag flying there may be a symbol of pride to others in Montgomery, the state capital and self-styled “Cradle of the Confederacy.” But to Holmes, who is black, the Rebel banner stands for something radically different.

“I see the flag of a defunct and disgraced nation, one that wanted to hold my forebears in slavery,” he said. “Every Confederate flag or symbol of the Confederacy should be barred from Alabama and every other part of the country.”

Common View of Blacks


However extreme that prescription may seem, Holmes’ reaction to the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy is common among black Southerners--and it underscores a continuing problem for the South in the region’s attempts to create a truly biracial society.

Symbols and memorials of the South’s Confederate heritage abound below the Mason-Dixon line. The familiar red flag with a blue X-shaped cross flies over statehouses, on college campuses and from flagstaffs on private residences. Copies of the flag, on automobile tags, T-shirts, baseball caps and beach towels, are sold at countless truck stops and roadside stores.

At college football games, “Dixie” is an eternally popular fight song. Hundreds of Confederate monuments and statues stand in Southern town squares. A typical inscription is this one on the Confederate monument in Augusta, Ga: “No nation rose so white and fair, none fell so pure of crime.”

And in each of the 11 Southern states that formed the Confederacy, there are holidays celebrating such Confederate heroes as President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee.


Potency of Symbols

Blacks and whites, however, are deeply divided over the meaning of these symbols and memorials and what prominence they should be given. The schism attests to the potency of symbols and to the important role they play in human society.

“To blacks, there’s no doubt that they symbolize racism and white supremacy, much as the Nazi swastika symbolizes anti-Semitism to Jews,” said Charles Wilson, a historian at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. “To whites, the meaning is more ambiguous. To many, they are symbols of what they see as a noble Civil War heritage. To a lot of poor whites, they may symbolize individualism and white ethnic pride, like country music. To the klan, they stand for white purity.”

To Kevin Barnett, a white Atlanta factory worker who sports a Confederate flag on his cap and has an outsized Rebel banner hanging in the living room of his apartment, the Confederate emblems symbolize protest against authority.

“They ain’t got nothing to do with hating black people or any of that KKK stuff,” he said. “All they mean to me is ‘get the government off my back and leave me the hell alone.’ ”

Of all the reminders of the South’s Confederate tradition, undoubtedly the most controversial are the Rebel flag and the song “Dixie.” They are the source of never-ending friction between blacks and whites, hampering efforts by the South to move completely out of the shadows of its racial past.

In Georgia, for instance, a fierce debate has erupted over whether the Georgia state flag should be redesigned to remove the Confederate Stars and Bars from the banner. The controversy was sparked by the spectacle of the hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members and their sympathizers waving Confederate flags and shouting “Nigger, go home!” at black marchers during a civil rights demonstration in January in all-white Forsyth County, just north of Atlanta.

Belongs in Museum


“The rightful place for the Stars and Bars is in a museum,” said black state Rep. Frank Redding of Decatur, who has introduced legislation that would replace the Confederate emblem on the Peach State flag with three horizontal bars--one white between two red.

The white and red bars were part of the state flag before 1956. In that year, however, in a gesture of defiance against the winds of civil-rights change that began sweeping over the old Jim Crow South, the Georgia Legislature replaced the bars with the blue diagonal cross and red field of the Confederate banner.

“The Stars and Bars does have special meaning for the descendants of Confederate veterans--and I respect that,” Redding said. “At the same time, I don’t think Jeff Davis or Robert E. Lee would be proud seeing white racists like those in Forsyth County with their bellies hanging over their belts, waving Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas.”

‘It’s Very Disturbing’

Caroline Perkey, president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, agrees with that. “It’s very disturbing to us to see the KKK and the White Patriot Party use the Confederate flag the way they do,” said Perkey, of Lenoir City, Tenn. “We wish we had some law to protect how the flag is displayed.”

To her, the flag is like a badge of honor for her 16 ancestors who fought in the Civil War--among them, a great-grandfather who saw action in the bloody battles of Shiloh, Chickamauga and Atlanta. After the war, she said, he walked back home to Tennessee from a Union prison camp in North Carolina, to find that his 2,000-acre plantation had been reduced to 100 acres, and his wife was living in utter poverty.

Redding’s proposal to revamp the Georgia state flag faces tough opposition. Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, who presides over the Senate, is among those who look with displeasure on the bill.

“I don’t believe the flag is racist any more than I think the playing of ‘Dixie’ is racist,” he said recently. He added, however, that it is unfortunate that “a lot of people are using the Confederate flag now in a way they should not.”


Battle in Carolina

In neighboring South Carolina, a similar battle is heating up over the practice of flying the Confederate flag over the state Capitol in Columbia. As in Georgia, the debate was sparked by a highly publicized racial incident: the hazing of a black cadet by white upperclassmen dressed to resemble klansmen at The Citadel, a state-supported military college in Charleston with a strong Confederate tradition.

Late last month, in the wake of his investigation into the incident at The Citadel, the state’s top civil rights official, Human Rights Commissioner James Clyburn, urged the Legislature to take down the Confederate flag because most blacks see it as a symbol of racism.

Clyburn, who is black and a former history teacher, said he was prompted to speak out by his daughter, who had chastised him for keeping his thoughts about the flag to himself.

‘No Longer Trivial’

“I grew up in a world of segregation, discrimination and prejudice,” he said. “Until the last few weeks, I guess I had subconsciously accepted the presence of the Confederate flag in the place where I do my day-to-day business. I considered it trivial. . . . But when I looked in the eyes of my daughter--and felt the pain which the flag was bringing to her--it was no longer trivial.”

In January, the South Carolina capital also was the scene of a potentially explosive contretemps over the Confederate anthem “Dixie.” The song was to have been played at the inauguration of the new Republican governor, Carroll Campbell, as part of a so-called patriotic medley of tunes that included “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

But key black legislators told the governor’s aides before the ceremony that they would walk out if “Dixie” was played as scheduled, and Campbell had the song deleted to avoid a showdown.

Some Whites Disgruntled

The governor’s decision did not sit well with some white legislators. “If they were going to play ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ they should have had ‘Dixie,’ ” said Republican Sen. John Courson of Richland. A fellow GOP senator, Glenn McConnell of Charleston, added that deleting “Dixie” amounted to censorship by black legislators. “Like it or not, ‘Dixie’ is an integral part of our heritage,” he said.

Emory Thomas, a noted Civil War historian at the University of Georgia, views disputes over the playing of “Dixie” this way:

“In the best of all possible worlds, both races might relate to ‘Dixie,’ but right now they don’t. The song offends blacks, and it ought not to be played as a matter of what are supposed to be Southern virtues: taste and good manners. It would be in poor taste to sing Nazi drinking songs and SS marching songs in this country because that would offend a sizable number of Jewish people. Similarly with the playing of ‘Dixie.’ ”

Repositories of Tradition

Southern college campuses are among the strongest repositories of the Confederate tradition.

At the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, for example, Kappa Alpha fraternity--which was founded at Washington and Lee University and considers Robert E. Lee its spiritual leader--holds a traditional Old South Week each spring. Fraternity members dress up in Confederate uniforms and hold a mock secession ceremony, with their dates garbed in antebellum-style hoop skirts.

Until it became a source of contention with black students, the fraternity also used to fly a giant Confederate flag from the front of its white-columned house on Fraternity Row during the celebrations.

“I don’t think they realize the impact all this has on black students here,” said Kim Cooper, 20, a junior English major who is black. “Last year, when they were asked not to fly the big flag, they took it down--but they put up a lot of little ones, all over the windows, their cars and everything else. In a way, they were saying they don’t care how I feel.”

Not Official Flag

Interestingly enough, the flag around which so much dispute revolves was never the official flag of the Confederate nation, but a battle flag designed by Confederate Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard that became widely popular with fighting troops.

The ensign formally adopted by the Confederate Congress as the official national flag is the one that is rightfully known as the Stars and Bars. It had a blue field in the canton corner with a circle of stars and three horizontal bars--one white between two red, as in the pre-1956 Georgia state flag. It was replaced in 1863 however, because in battle it too closely resembled the Yankee Stars and Stripes.

In turn, the second banner was revised in 1865 because it was largely white and could be mistaken for a flag of surrender when hanging limp from a staff. The third flag added a vertical red band along the right-hand edge. But it is Beauregard’s popular battle flag that has endured.

Erection of Monuments

Black Southerners have long challenged what they see as the glorification of Confederate history through the display of that Rebel flag and through the erection of monuments to Confederate heroes.

In 1890, when an equestrian statue to Robert E. Lee was dedicated in Richmond, Va., on what later became Monument Avenue, considerable animosity toward the event was expressed in the Richmond Planet, a black newspaper owned and edited by John Mitchell Jr.

The paper criticized the entire ceremony--which featured a parade of 15,000 Confederate veterans, along with 10,000 other citizens--as a “legacy of treason and blood” to future generations.

Oddly, however, Richmond today is a city where blacks and whites have few disputes over the Confederate legacy. That harmony is all the more remarkable because Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy and boasts a wealth of Confederate shrines, including the White House of the Confederacy; the Museum of the Confederacy, the South’s largest Confederate museum, and, along Monument Avenue, the grandest display of statues of Confederate heroes below the Mason-Dixon line.

‘Attitude Is Scholarly’

“I think the difference now stems from the fact that the attitude the city takes toward such things as the Confederate White House and the Museum of the Confederacy is scholarly,” said Pamela White of the Historic Richmond Foundation. “It’s no longer the emotional attachment to the Confederacy and the Lost Cause that was so offensive to blacks.”

One measure of the strides Richmond has made is that its City Council, which is dominated by blacks, recently set aside $500,000 to restore the statues on Monument Avenue, including, besides the Lee monument, statues of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Confederate Adm. Matthew Fontaine Maury.

The Rev. Miles Jones, pastor of Providence Park Baptist Church and a prominent black community leader, says friction over Richmond’s Confederate tradition also has been eased because blacks now have symbols around which they can rally--unlike they did in the days before the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

“The state has a day of recognition for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the traditional black neighborhood here, Jackson Ward, is being renovated as a historic district; and there’s a statue to one of our favorite black sons, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, the great dancer,” he said.

Contributions of Blacks

The role of blacks in Richmond’s Civil War history also is being brought out at historical sites. At the Richmond National Battlefield Park, for example, the exhibits now include references to black Union soldiers who fought in the area.

“What I found when I came here is that the original founders of the park had completely excluded any references to the contributions of the colored troops who fought here,” said Sylvester Putnam, a black who has been the park superintendent since 1976.

“Much to my amazement, when I studied the history of this park, I found that blacks had a considerable involvement,” he continued. “For example, there were 13 black Union soldiers who received the Congressional Medal of Honor as a result of their heroism in the battles around Richmond.”

A total of 186,000 blacks served in the Union Army, 65% of whom had grown up in the South. More than 38,000 black Union soldiers lost their lives; the black casualty rate was 40% greater than that of white Union soldiers.

Pressed Into Service

In February, 1865, the Confederate Congress authorized the enrollment of 30,000 blacks in the Rebel army. But the war ended before any but a couple of black battle groups could be mustered--and they were never sent into action. Many Southern blacks, however, were pressed into service for the Confederacy as ditchdiggers, foragers, teamsters, cooks and servants.

At the 1932 Confederate veterans’ reunion in Richmond, a black who had been a servant with a Georgia regiment during the war was permitted to speak in the hall where the convention sessions were held. His comments go a long way toward explaining the antipathy blacks in general feel toward the Confederate cause.

“I am 107 years old, I have always been a white man’s nigger, and the Yankees can’t change me, sir!” he declared to loud applause.

Historians and scholars say the biggest obstacle to finding a common ground between blacks and whites on Confederate symbols--particularly the Confederate battle flag--is that the symbols began to be associated with the Ku Klux Klan beginning in the 1920s and with other virulent segregationists during the civil rights eras of the 1950s and 1960s.

“Up until the end of World War I, there was a chance that the flag and other Confederate symbols might not have been such a source of contention,” said Gaines Foster, a Louisiana State University historian.

“Unfortunately, white Southerners allowed a certain segment of the white South to turn these symbols into symbols of white supremacy.