Confederate flag tense topic

Published: March 13, 2008
Kevin Spradlin
Cumberland Times-News

CUMBERLAND – Norma Blacke Bordeau has no problem with the Confederate flag. In her own words, "it’s a piece of cloth."

No, it’s not the flag that offends black Americans, said Bordeau, president of the Allegany County Chapter of the NAACP. Instead, "it’s what the flag has come to represent."

Recent discussion on what that flag means to blacks and others, Bordeau said, is a "golden opportunity for racial reconciliation in Western Maryland."

"Right now, if people will come out of their safe corners and others take off their blinders, put down their denials and join the effort to uplift all our children, black and white, we will have a freshly invigorated community," Bordeau said. "I believe it. I work for it. I pray for it."

The semi-retired theologian has become intimately involved in such discussions, along with other civic leaders, school administrators and local law enforcement officers, since racial tensions have heated up. Many have claimed the issues began last spring. But in recent weeks, those tensions have begun to intensify.

It’s an evolution that has affected Bordeau’s daily routine.

"Last night, I said, ‘I will sleep, I will sleep, I will sleep.’ I did not sleep," Bordeau said. "I prayed."

But there are at least two sides to every story. One alternative view is that of Patricia Smith, whose son is one of the students who was suspended for three days from Fort Hill High School. It was her son, Smith said, who made the "Don’t make me bring out the white sheets" remark to fellow student Crystalee Campbell.

"It’s hatred," Bordeau said.

Smith said it’s something else. She said her son and Campbell got into an argument after Crystalee cut to the front of the lunch line. Her son was frustrated, Smith said. But a second boy – Smith’s nephew – is, by her own account, "a different type of kid," and refused to let the situation go. Both boys argued with Crystalee, who has admitted to getting loud and using profanities.

"(Crystalee) is not a victim," Smith said.

Smith said her son has Asperger’s disorder, a form of autism that restricts communication skills, which results in poor social interaction.

"He’s been called a retard," by other students, Smith said. "They say the cruelest things possible. It doesn’t make a racial slur right. But she did try to cut into the line."

The nephew said something to Crystalee when, Smith said, the girl "threatened to punch him." Smith said her son suggested Crystalee go to the end of the line. Smith said that’s when Crystalee told her son to stay out of it. A teacher intervened before the situation got worse, Smith said. Her son was suspended three days. Crystalee received two days’ in-school suspension.

Smith said she and Lakeal Ellis, Crystalee’s mother, and the two teenagers went to the Cumberland Police building for a mediation of sorts coordinated by Cpl. Jim Hott, Fort Hill’s school resource officer.

"(My son) apologized for what he said," Smith said. "They explained why that comment hurt them. (My son) listened. It was coming to the close of the conversation. I sat and waited for her daughter to apologize for trying to beat (my son) up. Her daughter really didn’t say anything. (Crystalee) seemed amused by the whole thing. How can she be afraid when she’s the one that’s so aggressive? She threatened to punch my nephew in the nose and threatened to beat my son up."

Smith insisted her son is not a racist, though he’s been labeled as one by fellow students. She said her son doesn’t understand – he owned up to what he did wrong. He thought things would be OK.

"I don’t know why he said what he said," Smith said. "He watches a lot of television. They play a lot of online video games. He hears it from other kids (and) in school. Kids are very open. I think half the stuff that kids say … they don’t realize what it means. They just shoot off at the mouth."

She said the conversation her son had with Crystalee’s mother and aunt has changed him. She said he tried to "do what is right and now he’s pegged a racist."

Smith said she approached some Fort Hill students and asked them what the Confederate flag meant to them. Rebellion, she was told. Same thing, she said, as earrings, tattoos and wild hair.

"You cannot look at a symbol and think, automatically, that a person’s racist," Smith said. "It might have a whole, totally different meaning to them."

She said education is key to finding out what the flag truly stands for. Still, she said, the flag should not be banned.

"It’s gotten out of hand with the flag," Smith said. "They don’t know how to fight for their civil rights (to display) the flag. They don’t have anybody backing them up."

Her concern is that some sympathizers are listening – groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance Youth, she said, are ready to lend a supportive hand. She recently overheard – and put a stop to – a conversation in which one participant noted you could join the KKK online for $45.

Born in Germany, Smith said she feels the Nazi swastika is a negative symbol.

"It represents something my people did to the Jewish nation," Smith said. But maybe, she said, people are wearing that symbol now "for good luck."

"We have to give everybody the same benefit of the doubt," Smith said. "This is what Martin Luther King Jr. fought for also."

Bordeau has a different perspective. The flag "is a constant reminder of the institutional racism that has thrived since the Civil War," she said.

"We’re still struggling to be treated as first-class citizens," Bordeau said. "It’s not the flag. It’s the people who misuse it as bigotry."

Blacks are part of America and so is the flag. The flag, Bordeau said, has its place in America today – inside a museum. She said people who had relatives die in the Civil War "need to be able to honor that in their hearts. I don’t think they appreciate the ones who use it for bigotry. It denigrates their dead as well."

© 2008, The Cumberland Times-News

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