Student defends right to wear Confederate flag
By Toby Coleman
When she barred Hurricane High School students from wearing clothing depicting the Confederate flag, Principal Joyce Vessey Swanson did it to eliminate racial tension.
She ended up stirring up a battle over the First Amendment that landed in Charleston’s U.S. District Court Monday.
An 18-year-old named Frankie Bragg says he has built a wardrobe of T-shirts depicting Confederate flags to honor his family’s “Southern heritage.” He sued after school administrators sent him to detention for wearing one of his T-shirts.
Bragg says he is standing up for what he believes is right, and rejects any implication that he is a bigot. “I’ve got some friends who are African-American,” he said in court Monday. “I’m not one bit racist.”
U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver’s ruling, expected by the end of next week, could prompt a drastic change in the attire at Hurricane High, a school where only 14 of the school’s 1,004 students identify themselves as African-American.
“If the ban is lifted, we will immediately see significant exhibition of the rebel flag,” Swanson said. “Based on past experience, I think we’ll see flags flying off of backs of trucks as well as on clothing, and I think it will disrupt the teaching experience.”
Bragg’s lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union say the change may force Hurricane High to figure out a better way to teach students that the flag some see as a symbol of Southern pride is regarded by others as a symbol of hatred and oppression.
“I think they’re trying to do the right thing but they don’t know how to do it,” said lawyer Terri Baur.
For years, the Confederate flag’s stars and bars have been a familiar sight in Hurricane High School, according to longtime teacher William Michael Ellis.
During his first three years at the school, Bragg said, nobody seemed to mind that he wore T-shirts depicting Confederate flags and always wore a flag buckle on his belt.
“There was no problem with it,” he said.
He said he got in trouble once for using a racial epithet, and it had nothing to do with the Confederate flags he wore.
He was at a football game against South Charleston High, he said, and the players for the other team were calling him and his teammates “cracker” and other names. He responded with “the n-word,” he said.
“It just slipped out,” he said. “I got ejected from the rest of the game and the next game.”
He said he accepted the punishment but kept on wearing the Confederate flag.
One of his African-American classmates, Lisa Adkins of Hamlin, even came to court Monday to testify on his behalf.
“I’m fine with it,” she said of t-shirts depicting the Confederate flag. “I have one at home.”
Swanson decided to do away with the Confederate flag last summer, after the Hurricane High faculty asked the Putnam County school board to bar students from wearing Confederate flags, tank tops, short skirts and shorts to school.
Swanson thought the teachers’ proposal was a good one. In her three decades in Putnam County schools, she said she had seen some students use the Confederate flag to intimidate black students.
In 1989, she said, she watched Poca High School students run a black cheerleader out of a pep rally by waving Confederate flags. A few years ago, she said she saw Buffalo High School students line up and display Confederate flags as a black student toured the school. And last year, she said some students scrawled a Confederate flag and racial epithets in a ninth-grader’s notebook.
The school’s lawyer, Greg Bailey, says Swanson banned kids from wearing the rebel flag to prevent disruptions in school.
“There’s a history of problems we believe are directly tied to the use of the flag to intimidate and harass people,” he said.
Bragg’s lawyers respond that Swanson went too far, and in trying to help people she has engaged in unconstitutional censorship.
“It ignores the beauty of that flag, the history of that flag, the heritage of that flag,” lawyer Roger Forman said of the ban. “And those are not code words to my client or others. Those are real and just as much a part of American history as the First Amendment.”
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