Debate on meaning of Confederacy’s banner’s unflagging

By Sherry Koonce
Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise

The Confederate battle flag we know as the Stars and Bars has survived 140 years beyond the Civil War, outlived Jim Crow and almost every other symbol of the Old South.

It has survived contemporary political battles in several states and remains a colorful sticking point in American debates over racism. Yet it rises, again and again.

Its latest unfurling is at a theater near you, in the new "Dukes of Hazzard" movie, where it again adorns the roof of Bo and Luke Duke’s famed Dodge Charger, the General Lee. Is it a genuinely proud symbol of Southern heritage or a shameful reminder of slavery and segregation?

Are young blacks — safely removed from the violent civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s — less offended than their elders? Is it just a Southern thing — less about race than sacrifice, history and pride — that Yankees will never understand? Or is it as viscerally grotesque as a Nazi swastika?

"Any time you see it, you know what it represents," Sam Bean, president of the NAACP in Beaumont, Texas, said. "It does not represent equality, justice or fairness. It represents racism to the next level."

David Brown, 40, of Orange, Texas, owner of Deweyville Flag and Produce Stand along with his wife Angela, 39, said: "This here is a Southern heritage thing. You’d be surprised at the number of black folks that come in here to buy rebel flags. It has nothing to do with slavery."

Brown said he and his wife sell about 75 Confederate-style flags a week.

More than 100 different flags flutter on display. Many are special-interest novelty flags for bass fishermen, NASCAR fans, deer hunters, truck drivers and even marijuana smokers.

"The ‘Git ‘er Done’ flag has been a big seller, but the most popular is the ‘Heritage Not Hate’ flag," David Brown said.

Their customers stick the flags everywhere: Pickups, bedroom walls, front yards, motorcycles, boats, even deer blinds. While Confederate battle flags are highly visible at the Browns’ crossroads stand, others prefer to keep them out of sight — and unadvertised.

Sonny Moore, 17, a high school student who’s white, has a Confederate battle flag in his bedroom.

"You should be proud to represent the South," he said. During the four years the flag’s hung in Moore’s bedroom, he says nobody’s taken offense. "It’s a reminder of the way the South used to be," he said.

For obvious reasons, certain old Southern ways are not so fondly remembered by everyone.

"That flag has always represented what it represents, and that was the South fighting against the North for slavery," the NAACP’s Bean said. It doesn’t matter if the flag appears in TV or movies, on capitol buildings or on a pick-up bumper, Bean said. Bean is not planning to see the "The Dukes of Hazzard" because it sends "the wrong message."

Lakisha Hebert, a 26-year-old black woman from Beaumont, said she had not seen the movie but isn’t offended by the flag. Her generation, she says, has moved on, past the days when her ancestors were enslaved.

"It’s just a flag to me. Black folks got ahead in life, so that flag don’t bother me," Hebert said.

The issue of slavery cannot be divorced from the Civil War, said Dr. Ralph Wooster, Lamar University history professor. Right or wrong, for that very reason, the Confederate flag continues to be associated with racial issues — especially since many hate groups have taken the symbol for their own.

"It certainly would have surprised some of the Confederates, and many would be astounded to know what the flag is being used for today," Wooster said.

The Ku Klux Klan and other racist hate groups have adopted the flag’s motif. More than 500 extremist groups use the Southern Cross among their symbols, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Alabama-based organization that tracks the activity of hate groups.

H.K. Edgerton — a black North Carolinian — said he is proud of his Southern heritage and flag. In a rebel uniform, he carried the Confederate battle flag from his native North Carolina to Austin during the 1,300-Plus Mile March Across Dixie for Southern Heritage earlier this year.

Edgerton, an activist and immediate past president of the Asheville (N.C.) NAACP, works to bring recognition to the African-Americans who fought for the South during the Civil War.

Among them: his great-great-grandfather, John Edgerton. "Nobody talks about those black heroes. Anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 fought for the South, and many others stayed at home and protected plantations and provided foodstuffs," Edgerton said.

The South, he said, belongs to all Southern people, not just black or white. "This was our homeland," he says. "I’m not here to defend institutional slavery, just our homeland. When I see the Confederate battle flag, it makes my heart start pumping because I know that is the Southern flag. That flag says black folks like me earned a place of honor and dignity in history."

Copyright 2005

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