Time changes the use, meaning of symbols

About 45 years ago I remember looking at a section in the Sears catalog that showed Superman costumes, astronaut outfits and Civil War uniforms for boys.

I really wanted the Confederate uniform, though it did look kind of dorky all new and with all the components. I’d been watching the show Johnny Yuma, in which a former Confederate soldier with a gentle nature and high morals roamed around the West clashing with mean people and winning. He had a Confederate kepi (cap), I think a CSA belt buckle and maybe some other gear, and was about as cool as you could get in the early 1960s. Johnny Yuma was a good guy.

My older brother wanted the Union uniform. Being in Atlanta at the time — the height of the Civil War centennial — we called the uniforms "Yankee" and "Rebel," and I thought the latter — rebelliousness — was more my nature.

Today I stick to civilian clothes, but my brother still regularly dresses as a Confederate and sometimes a Union cavalryman as a re-enactor in North Carolina.

I started thinking about those days after reading last week about the reaction of Independence High School to an incident involving the Confederate battle flag and, allegedly, a noose, displayed on a car in the parking lot. The school banned the Confederate symbol from the campus.

The banned flag was a battle banner in the war. The Confederate national flag used a lot of white in its several iterations to stand for "purity," so the battle flag made sure the message was not interpreted as surrender.

After the war it was a symbol of resistance and defiance, and eventually of virulent racism. Later it was used against integration.

Still, though, when you see a battle flag sticker or license plate on a car, you always have to wonder what the intent is. For some, it symbolizes the South, or Southern heritage, as in the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. Others use it to symbolize independence, rebelliousness or a "devil may care" nature. And for some, it means segregation and white supremacy.

It is a big problem that you never know in advance what is meant by the use of the flag on a bumper or a T-shirt — unless it is paired with a noose.

When we moved from Atlanta to New Mexico, my brother and I sometimes flew the flag over our rural house, just because we thought it looked cool. I’d never do that today. Most people now would interpret it wrongly. When we moved from Guam to Tennessee, a friend gave us a battle flag license plate, sort of mockingly, to say that we were moving to redneck-land. And then all of my kids graduated from a high school represented by the Rebel.

Ironically, our single Civil War ancestor was a Union soldier fresh off the boat from Germany.

Symbols are pretty strong. And their meaning certainly changes over time. The meaning as intended isn’t always as it is perceived. Sometimes the message is loud and clear.

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