Flags are symbols by definition. And symbols are important—just ask any English major. Those on both sides of the Rebel flag fight agree on this. Yes, the flag in question goes by several names: Confederate battle flag, Rebel flag, the Southern Cross, and the Dixie flag. But this is not about the nomenclature. This is about symbolism. For one group of people, the flag symbolizes pride in heritage and history. It represents the South. It represents freedom. To others it is a symbol of hatred, subjugation, and intimidation. How can it be true that one flag can be all those things? Well, that’s how really great symbols work. Just ask any English major. The complexity of a particular symbol enhances its artistic power and authority. And there is no doubt that the rebel flag is a symbol with great potency.
In addition to being a battle flag for the Confederacy, the Rebel flag was also carried by the Dixiecrats, the splinter 1948 political party opposed to civil rights, and the Klan Klux Klan. In the history classes of my Midwestern education, it was prominent in the photos held above the men in white hoods. No matter who else carries it, and for what purpose, those guys pretty much spoiled it as an emblem. It is a symbol that does not say “I am free.” It says “I am a racist.”
That can’t be the message at least some of the people who are wearing it around intend. So, what are people saying when they put it on?
When someone dons a Cleveland Browns t-shirt, I assume that the person loves Browns football. The person is saying she/he is a fan. Then, when a person dons the Rebel flag, of what are they a fan? Grits? Mint juleps? NASCAR? Civil War battle history? The glory of the Old South? No, none of those things are brought to the forefront of my mind. My reaction is rather more physical than cognitive. It is disgust.
As in other parts of the country, when the state of South Carolina took the flag down off of its capitol building, Rebel flag devotees got riled up. Some people incorrectly believed that the government was somehow outlawing it. Then when Amazon.com and Wal-Mart followed suit by stopping sales, that really sent Rebel flag fans into a flurry of political activism. Where I live, in Southwestern Virginia, flags have cropped up like giant ugly weeds, overnight, on the back of pickup trucks, on hats and t-shirts, and even on people’s homes. Not that some people weren’t already occasionally displaying it, but now it seems as though the flag wavers are waging a campaign to stick it in my face wherever I go. Shop at Kroger, see the flag. Eat at a Chinese buffet, see the rebel flag.
The other day I passed a car with four men inside, one was hanging his arm out the window, cooling the burn from a brand new Southern Cross tattoo. Not so unexpectedly, these individuals are almost exclusively young to middle-aged white males, who, quite frankly come off as rather intimidating. I assume that is their intention. I only wish that we could harness their fervor for good. Imagine if we could get these guys on the side of, say, activism for ending hunger or activism towards equal access to healthcare. But nope. It is a flag, a symbol, that inspires them to put it all on the line in public.
Here, as in a few other parts of the country, a local high school made some national news when the principal suspended some students for wearing the flag and for displaying the flag in the school’s parking lot. This high school has a specific rule against the display of the Rebel flag. When I saw the picture in the newspaper of the student protesters with their young, bright faces wrapped in the flag out outside of the high school chatting vivaciously with reporters, I was nauseous.
It’s not about racism, they said. It’s about freedom of expression. I, like many Americans, spent some time thinking about this claim. As a really big fan of the First Amendment, I always tend to err on the side of protecting our right to speak out. And I really tried to see their point. I did. I won’t go into the legal argument that the Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions that public school students don’t actually have the full right to free speech, but instead I will go with the conclusion that gives my conscience peace. In a public school we have to protect everyone’s rights, including the right to come to school without fear of intimidation. While I’m sure those white students who wrapped themselves in the flag and loudly touted that it has nothing to do with racism believe what they are saying is true, I surmise there’s a whole group of kids who would beg to differ. Public schools are academic institutions, places to learn, and rules are made to support those outcomes. You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe. Wearing the Rebel flag is bullying by almost any definition.
So, there you have it. Hey, fans of the Rebel flag, let’s find another way to say that you are proud of your heritage. And let’s make sure we are actually creating a heritage that our children can be proud of, one that includes a little less abhorrence and a little more accommodation for our fellow man.