Tennessee, Alabama Face New Rifts Over Old Confederate Symbols

July 25, 2005

July 25 (Bloomberg) — The tug-of-war over the symbols of the Confederacy — which has ebbed and flowed over the century and a half since 11 states seceded from the U.S. — has broken out again in communities across the South.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University gave up a three-year court fight with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and agreed this month to keep the word Confederate in the name of one of its dormitories.

A week earlier, on July 7, the Georgia Heritage Council filed suit demanding that the city of Augusta restore a Confederate flag to the community’s main gathering place, the Riverwalk. Augusta removed the flag in September at the request of a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest and largest U.S. civil rights group, which brought a convention to the city.

In Alabama, outside the state capital of Montgomery, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have hoisted a towering 20-foot by 30-foot (6-meter by 9-meter) Confederate flag over a freeway.

The skirmishes over the flag and other icons of the South’s past have rekindled antagonisms and reopened debate about the meaning of the Confederacy itself as well as the four-year war between the states, which killed an estimated 620,000 Americans from April 1861 to May 1865.

“Even today, issues around the symbols of the Civil War generate very, very intense feelings,” says Michael Schoenfeld, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for public affairs. “Partisans don’t hesitate to let you know about that.”

For Jeff Davis, 75, head of the Gainesville-based Georgia Heritage Council, the Confederate flag honors ancestors who fought for their land and way of life. For the NAACP and its supporters, the “Stars and Bars” banner represents hate and racism — the flag of soldiers who fought to preserve slavery.

T-Shirts, Bikini Bottoms

Today across the South, use of the word Yankee still isn’t likely to refer to the New York baseball team. Symbols of the secession live on in T-shirts, bumper stickers, belt buckles and bikini bottoms.

Vanderbilt announced in 2002 that it would remove the word Confederate from the face of the university’s Confederate Memorial Hall because it was inconsistent with the 1873 founding mission of the school’s benefactor, shipping magnate and financier Cornelius Vanderbilt, says Schoenfeld, 43. Vanderbilt, who died in 1877, sought to heal the wounds between the North and South

“It was seen by many students — black and white, Northern and Southern — as a glorification of and a symbol of a system that was contrary to the values of the university,” he says.

The Tennessee division of the Richmond, Virginia-based United Daughters of the Confederacy filed suit against the removal of the word, claiming breach of contract. In 1935, the group paid for one-third of the cost of the $150,000 building.

`Declare Victory’

The university won an initial ruling against the group’s suit in October 2003. Then, in May, the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned that decision. On July 11, Vanderbilt said it wouldn’t appeal.

The university said it would leave the word Confederate inscribed on the building while removing it from all official references, including maps, brochures and the school’s Web site.

“We felt that we had achieved what we set out to achieve,” says Schoenfeld. “We addressed head-on the question of how the building is referred to on campus. We decided to declare victory and move on.”

Meantime, the Confederacy has a new symbolic presence about 265 miles (425 kilometers) south of Nashville, near Verbena, Alabama. There, a huge Confederate flag flaps in the wind above Interstate 65 after the Sons of Confederate Veterans bought half an acre (one-fifth hectare) of land and dedicated the flag June 26.

`White Supremacy’ Symbol

The Baltimore-based NAACP calls the Confederate flag a “state-sponsored symbol of white supremacy.” It seeks to “remove the Confederate battle flag and or Confederate emblems from any and all public sites in this country except at historical museums.”

Opposition like that is good for business, says Freddie Ritch, a purveyor of Confederate memorabilia in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, a town of 10,600 west of Charlotte.

“People in the South, we’re rebels and that’s part of the appeal,” says Ritch, 52, who sells about 700 items at his Web site rebelstore.com. “We’re kind of like the underdog and people always pull for the underdog, maybe.”

Ritch started selling reproductions of Confederate currency at Civil War battle reenactments in the Carolinas in 1992, “to make gas money,” he says.

“Next thing you know, they’re asking me if I had pictures of Robert E. Lee,” the general of the Confederate army, he says. “Next thing you know it’s flags and next thing you know it’s rebelstore.com.” By 1997 he was able to quit his job at a filter manufacturer.

Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart

Now Ritch sells about $200,000 worth of Confederate merchandise a year, ranging from belt buckles to bikinis, hats and flags. Confederate banners and bumper stickers are the most popular.

The 11 states that seceded in 1860 and 1861 to create the Confederacy now are home to eight of the world’s 50 biggest companies by stock market value, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. They include Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp., the biggest; Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Bank of America Corp., based in Charlotte. Still, state workers in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia get a day off to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day.

Davis, the Georgia Heritage Council leader, says opposition to the Confederate flag by groups like the NAACP has increased public support for it.

“It means honoring our ancestry,” he says. “That’s what it really is all about when you get down to it.”

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