Fighting the good fight
[Reprinted from Issues & Views February 2, 2004]
As the drive against all things southern, especially all things Confederate, proceeds, we get news almost daily of attempts to expunge or make less visible the cultural symbols of a past heritage. Monuments dedicated to the dead are either desecrated, removed, or renamed; in many schools students are prohibited from wearing Confederate flag designs on clothing or book bags; gravesites of fallen Civil War soldiers are forbidden to display the flag under which the deceased fought; youth groups, clubs, and organization chapters have been pressured to drop the names of men considered heroes in the war; and some businesses deny their employees the prerogative of displaying bumper stickers with heritage-oriented messages on their cars or stickers with similar messages on their lunch boxes.
These reprisals against symbols that, until recently, inspired negligible controversy, have been instigated, since the early 1990s, by an almost moribund NAACP with time on its hands, very few real grievances to attend to, and even fewer fundraising ideas for increasing revenues. Last year, in order to punish the state of South Carolina, whose officials still fly a Confederate flag on the capitol grounds, the NAACP declared a boycott of the state’s businesses and institutions, urging potential visitors to cancel planned conventions and all other events in the state. The call is for everyone to stay away and spend no money in South Carolina.
The state, with a large black population, annually hosts a variety of black family and school reunions, along with black-sponsored sports events. Thousands of blacks also vacation in South Carolina every year. Participants in these activities have not only ignored the NAACP’s boycott, many express annoyance at what they see as a worthless campaign. Some black business people, concerned about possible loss of income, have been outspoken in their contempt for this latest NAACP crusade.
Last year, seemingly in keeping with the spirit of the NAACP’s latest cause, Erenestine Harrison, a teacher and resident of Hampton, Virginia, set out on a one-woman petition drive to change the names of two schools in the city. The schools are named for principal figures of the Confederacy — Robert E. Lee Elementary and Jefferson Davis Middle School.
In a letter she wrote to the head of the black news service, NNPA, Harrison expressed her concern for the possible "psychological" impact on black children, who attend schools "honoring men who wanted to keep them in slavery." Hampton’s Daily Press newspaper encouraged Harrison to pursue her goal of eliminating the offensive school names, considering the new times in which we live and "given other changes in society." It looked as if Harrison’s campaign was on a roll, especially once the Associated Press picked up the story and it made the rounds in the New York Times, Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer. But then something happened.
As news of the petition drive spread, opponents to her plan began to contact her. By letter and email, Harrison was inundated with messages urging her to reconsider her determined course of action. Many of the writers appealed to her sense of fairness as an academic and scholar, urging her to do some further homework, not only by learning more about the men Lee and Davis, but about the nature of today’s southern heritage movement.
Well, she did the homework, and wound up changing her mind. In a January 18 letter to the chairman of the Hampton School board, Harrison informs him that she has dropped her petition to rename both schools. She details her contacts with members of several heritage organizations, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the League of the South, with whom she plans to "continue discussions."
In another letter to a critic, she explains how her research led her to reevaluate her once fixed notions about Robert E. Lee, and admits to engaging in "some hyperbole" in the past. About the Confederate flag, she writes, " . . . many white southerners see it as their heritage and won’t give it up and really should not have to."
In another response, Harrison tells of her skepticism of attempts by the NAACP’s director Julian Bond to involve himself in her petition action. She was not pleased to learn of Bond’s close association with the Southern Law and Poverty Center, headed by Morris Dees, since she rejects the SPLC’s broad classifications that malign certain organizations as "hate groups." She writes, "I have felt respected in communicating with everyone from the pro-southern groups."
In a January 29 press release, Harrison describes her delight in discovering the variety of opinions among black Hampton students on the subject of southern heritage, a consequence she considers worth all the fuss. Her initial campaign to rename the schools has become a subject in classrooms, where students are researching and writing about issues related to the war and its aftermath. When queried as to whether or not the schools should be renamed, opinions among the students appear to be mixed, and not necessarily determined by race. "I am happy about all the student research I am hearing about," Harrison writes.
Her research and intimate contact with Hampton’s blacks indirectly confirm the suspicion that attacks on southern symbols and culture are instigated by people with agendas, not by grassroots citizens. In an AP news story, she reaches a telling conclusion: "I don’t think the black community cares as much about removing a name as much as they [members of southern heritage groups] care about preserving it."
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