Stop the Civil War fight-songs fight

Jun 7 2014
Frank Wooten

Flags aren’t the only Confederate symbols some folks find offensive.

And that ain’t just whistlin’ "Dixie."

Musicians at The Citadel ain’t – er, aren’t – playing "Dixie" nearly as often they did in my ardent Bulldog-fan youth, either.

But officials at the Military College of South Carolina are now reasonably rejecting Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby’s call that they remove a Confederate Naval Jack on display with 56 other flags in Summerall Chapel.

As astute Post and Courier colleague Brian Hicks pointed out in his column Friday: "If you walk into Summerall Chapel, you have to look hard left the second you step inside to even see the flag."

And you don’t have to look hard at this 2000 legislative compromise to see the perils of getting what you ask for when demanding the removal of a Confederate flag:

That deal took one flag from the top of the Statehouse dome and put another in a more prominent spot in front of the Statehouse by the Confederate Monument.

"Dixie" history test (answer at column’s end):

Name the famous American who said: "I see you have a band. I propose now closing up by requesting you to play a certain piece of music, or a tune – I thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I ever heard."

It certainly was my favorite fight song in the early 1960s.

When The Citadel band cranked it up and began its pre-game march down the field, most of the Johnson Hagood Stadium faithful rose and roared approval with what sounded like latter-day Rebel yells.

OK, so few of the black spectators in the separate-but-unequal end-zone stands back then shared our enthusiasm for that particular number.

Neither did a trailblazing Citadel football player.

Thrown for a loss

Alex Macaulay, Citadel Class of 1994, is a history professor at Western Carolina University. He writes in "Building New Traditions: The Citadel in Post-World War II America," posted on The Citadel’s website:

"Norman Seabrooks (Class of 1973), an all-state defensive tackle and The Citadel’s first African American scholarship athlete, disliked hearing ‘Dixie’ as a fight song, and he would sit down or walk away when he heard the tune. As captain of the football team, he would leave the locker room early and step on the field before the band started playing. Other black cadets exhibited similar protests, and Seabrooks’ classmate Larry Ferguson faced a severe backlash for refusing to play the song as a member of the Regimental Band. Ferguson’s academic scholarship was threatened and one night, he and his roommate returned to the barracks to find their room trashed, racial threats painted on the walls, their books shredded, and a doll hung from the ceiling by a noose."

Macaulay also writes:

"In 1992, following widespread coverage of another racially charged incident on The Citadel’s campus, school officials banned the corps from carrying unofficial banners into sporting events and began looking for a new fight song."

So what was wrong with the "Dixie," the Southern anthem written by Ohioan Daniel Decatur Emmett?

The problem starts with its starting line:

"I wish I was in the land of cotton …"

It’s easy to understand why black Americans generally don’t cotton to positive references about cotton.

Still, lots of us miss "Dixie." And it’s not the only Civil War-era song that can provoke a negative reaction.

Almighty vengeance?

For instance, we hear "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" much more frequently in this first-to-secede state than we used to.

Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics, set to an old folk melody that also carried "John Brown’s Body," invoke righteous retribution in this opening verse:

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on …"

Gee, was it the Civil War or a holy war?

How long must we keep "marching on" around a futile circle of acrimonious debate over who’s still offending whom about a colossal-carnage conflict that ended nearly a century and a half ago?

How long must some media members extend those hard feelings by relentlessly agitating the public with such divisive stories?

And if you can’t tolerate the words to "Dixie," at least give the delightful Dixieland instrumental recording of it by Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong a fair hearing.

Trivia answer:

President Abraham Lincoln requested "Dixie" while speaking to a celebrating crowd from a White House window on April 10, 1865, one night after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant at Appomattox.

© 2014, The Post and Courier

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