War Over Historical Meaning of Slavery Breaks Out Across American South
A war over the historical meaning of slavery, the Civil War and segregation has broken out across the American South.
By Bob Moser
Skirmishes over Confederate symbols and history have broken out periodically since the day Robert E. Lee surrendered.
But with racial extremists gaining ground in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other "heritage" groups, these kinds of battles over representations of Southern history in schools, state capitols, museums and parks have multiplied on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. A representative sampling of important recent battlegrounds:
In September 1997, Timothy Castorina did what hundreds of teenagers have done since schools were integrated. Castorina showed up for classes at Madison High School in Richmond, Ky., wearing a "Southern Thunder" T-shirt emblazoned with two Confederate flags. His principal, like hundreds before him, suspended Castorina for violating Madison High's dress code.
When Castorina sued, the outcome seemed certain: In almost every such case, judges have backed school officials. But this March, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned Castorina's case into a rare legal victory for "heritage" forces.
Overturning a district court decision that had upheld Castorina's suspension because his T-shirt did not qualify as protected political "speech," the appellate judges invoked a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which found that students' First Amendment rights were violated when they couldn't go to school wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.
One of Castorina's happy lawyers was Kirk Lyons of the Southern Legal Resource Center and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (see A War Within). "This is the first pro-Confederate flag decision in any of the U.S. Courts of Appeal," Lyons said. To settle the suit, the Madison County school board voted in September to water down its dress code.
In October, the debate over Confederate symbols in schools moved north. A junior at Butler High School in Pennsylvania was suspended after flashing his principal the new tattoo on his shoulder: a red heart with the word "Dixie."
The school had already become a battleground after another student was kicked out of a football game for sporting a KKK shirt. Another Butler senior was forced to cover the stars and bars he'd painted on his pickup truck, replicating the Gen. Lee car from the 1980s television comedy, "The Dukes of Hazzard."
In a place not far from fictional Hazzard County, 100 students at Cherokee High School in Canton, Ga., were sent home in October after African-American parents and students complained about their Confederate-themed clothing.
Parents and members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans staged noisy protests, waving battle flags outside the school and packing school board meetings.
"It's not like people are running around in hoods," said one of the "rebel" students, football player Brandon Poole. "We're not hurting anybody."
Oddly enough, New Orleans' Confederate Memorial Hall got one of the biggest boosts in its 111-year history when it was served with an eviction notice this summer.
After being awarded legal ownership of the red-brick museum in a property dispute, the University of New Orleans had moved quickly to send the Confederate artifacts packing. But "heritage" supporters loudly protested, putting their money where their offended sensibilities were: The threatened museum received more than $150,000 in donations.
At press time, negotiations were under way, a federal appeal was winding through the courts, and it seemed likely the museum would stay put with its 5,000 items, including a crown of thorns Pope Pius IX gave to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The question of how history is represented has recently stirred heated debates at museums in Virginia, Alabama and the Carolinas. In South Carolina, the recovery of a Confederate submarine called the Hunley has led to plans for a new museum — and a fierce squabble over whether it will "Southernize" history the way many Civil War museums have.
"Heritage" defenders want to portray the soldiers who died in the Hunley as "Americans in the pursuit of freedom." Others want the museum to talk about the context of the Civil War and make it clear the Hunley sailors were defending the institution of slavery.
In this climate of cultural combat, even an exhibit about the Declaration of Independence isn't safe — especially when it's organized by liberal television producer Norman Lear.
The Charlotte Museum of History was picketed by the North Carolina League of the South chapter in September, after it began displaying an original copy of the Declaration.
Mike Tuggle, state chair of the League, explained his opposition: "By saying that the central meaning of the Declaration of Independence is equality, Lear is transforming the Declaration into an instrument for liberal activism."
Parks and Memorials
In 1861, Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as Confederate president on the Capitol grounds of Alabama. In 1965, the landmark voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery ended in front of the Capitol in almost the same spot.
But when a state commission recommended last year that Alabama add a civil rights monument to the Capitol's massive Confederate memorial, battle flag-waving members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and other groups protested it as an attempt to "do away with Southern heritage."
The debate became so vociferous that further discussion of the project — which included long-overdue repairs to the Confederate memorial — was put off until after the November elections.
From Fort Sumter to Appomattox, several national historic sites have been thrust into controversy when their officials began to talk about the causes and repercussions of the Civil War. The epicenter has been in Gettsyburg, where the spotlight has traditionally fallen on Gen. Robert E. Lee's audacity and the Confederate troops' tenacity — while the issues of slavery, Union troops and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address all got short shrift.
Scholars and park service officials say Gettysburg, like most Civil War parks, has long given visitors a subtly pro-Confederate message with its selective account of history.
"Not only does it perpetuate ignorance," George Washington University professor James Oliver Horton told U.S. News & World Report "it creates bias."
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court ended a former SCV commander's legal campaign to fly the Confederate battle flag over a Civil War prison camp in Maryland where 3,300 Southerners are buried.
Patrick Griffin had filed suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs, whose regulations allow the banner to fly over the cemetery just twice a year, on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day. The high court agreed with rulings by two circuit courts, blocking Griffin's self-described crusade to "honor Confederates as Confederates."
This fall, two tradition-soaked institutions of higher learning took previously unthinkable steps toward downplaying their Old South roots.
Officials at Virginia Military Institute, whose students fought for the Confederacy at the battle of Newmarket, considered banning all rebel symbols from campus after a request from the school's minority student group. No decision had been made at press time.
A decision was made in September at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where officials rechristened Confederate Memorial Hall, a dormitory built in 1935, as simply Memorial Hall. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which raised one-third of the money to build the Depression-era dorm, has filed suit to restore the old name.
Feelings have run high among "heritage" supporters, who came up with a new nickname for the school: "Panderbilt." Washington Times reporter Robert Stacy McCain, who despite his job is himself an avowed neo-Confederate enthusiast, gave Tennessee's UDC president, Janet Johnson, the last
"This is about American history, not one group's history," Johnson told McCain. "There's no difference between this and the Taliban blowing up those Buddhist statues in Afghanistan."
Failing to salute the Confederate flag has become a surefire loser in Southern elections. Just ask Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who engineered a compromise in his state's Confederate flag controversy by reducing the size of the battle flag on the state banner — and paid the price in his re-election bid on Nov. 5.
Considered a future presidential prospect because his moderate New South politics had been so popular, Barnes lost in a stunning upset to little-known Republican Sonny Perdue, who promised to push for a state referendum on the flag, which Barnes had worked to avoid.
Analysts said record turnout from rural white voters, many of them still seething over Barnes' flag compromise, doomed the governor.
"There was this huge undercurrent of resentment and anger about the flag," Southern political scientist Merle Black told The New York Times. "A lot of voters felt Barnes was not on their side when he pushed to change it."
In another sign of the ferocity of Georgia's flag debate, a man in rural Rockmart, Ga., had his yard set ablaze and gunshots fired into his house a few days before the November elections.
The reason: He had put out campaign signs for state Sen. Nathan Dean, one of the Democrats who helped the governor engineer his flag compromise. Dean, a fixture in the legislature since 1974, barely avoided defeat, winning by fewer than 300 votes.
On the same day Barnes was shocked at the polls, folks in Mississippi's Harrison County voted to keep flying the rebel flag — just as the entire state had voted, in a referendum last May, to keep Mississippi the last state to feature the Southern cross prominently on its flag.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans ran numerous TV commercials in Harrison County and successfully made the usual claim: "This is not about hate."