Look away, Dixieland
Empathy needed to understand Rebel flag debate
I am an Ole Miss Rebel.
That’s the message of the University of Mississippi’s most recent all-inclusive marketing campaign, which features a cast of many colors.
It’s also true personally. I have three degrees, a master’s and two bachelor’s, from Ole Miss and was witness to one of the school’s most transformative periods.
I bring this up because of the recent tragedy in which nine people were allegedly shot to death at a prayer meeting at a historically black church by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., and the debate about Confederate iconography which has since engulfed the nation.
I attended Ole Miss in the late 90s. I started in the first year of Tommy Tuberville’s tenure as head football coach. It turned out to be a very pivotal time in the school’s history – when its supporters stopped waving the long-associated Rebel flag at games and events.
While the state’s flagship public university’s tie with the flag had long caused uneasiness among many progressive students, alumni and supporters, not to mention Mississippi’s blacks, who make up about 40 percent of the state’s population, it took a 17-0 loss to in-state rival Mississippi State in the 1996 Egg Bowl, to launch a campaign to disassociate the school and the flag.
Tuberville told Chancellor Robert Khayat that he couldn’t “recruit against the Confederate flag,” arguing it perpetuated racist images of the state’s history that prevented the school from competing with rivals for the best athletes, as well as the best teachers and students.
Since the end of Reconstruction, white Southerners systematically disenfranchised blacks with poll taxes, impossible-to-pass literacy tests and violence, including bombings, fires, and public lynchings, against those who helped blacks to organize politically. In the photos that exist of these disgusting events, a Rebel flag is usually present.
More than anywhere in this country, Mississippi is associated with civil rights violence. No matter the impact on the school, the sound and the fury that erupted in the name of preserving heritage was immediate and immense. The flag’s supporters said the coach and the chancellor were misguided as to the reasoning for the South’s secession and willingness to fight for their rights and to how the school’s Old South image was perceived by those outside the state’s borders. The problem was all of their reasoning – economics, states’ rights, and invasion by foreign troops – was based on myth.
The root cause of the Civil War was the preservation of slavery and the social and economical order that allowed it. Arguing differently exposes delusion and willful ignorance of historical fact.
After the war, the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan used the Rebel flag to subjugate blacks during Reconstruction. The second iteration of the Klan in the 1920s also used the banner in its fight against upwardly mobile blacks as well as the immigration of European Catholics.
Ole Miss fans didn’t always wave the flag. Like many other Southerners, they picked up the Rebel flag in the 1940s when the Dixiecrat movement rose in opposition to extending civil rights to black Americans. But Mississippi’s opposition was not limited to waiving a flag or civilly casting a vote.
The early 1960s were especially damaging to the state’s reputation. In a three-year span, the state saw two days of riots at Ole Miss resulting in two deaths when James Meredith integrated the school in September 1962, NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers’ assassination in June 1963, and the firebombing of buses and the kidnapping and murder of three college-age kids trying to register black voters during Freedom Summer in 1964. Again, the Rebel flag was usually present with those who stood in opposition.
As a snap shot of the racial violence that occurred in Mississippi in a 10-week span, Doug McAdam, in his 1988 book Freedom Summer, points out that:
- 1,062 people were arrested
•80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten
•37 churches were bombed or burned
•30 black homes or businesses were bombed or burned
•4 civil rights workers and at least 3 Mississippi blacks were murdered
Still, in 1997, as many as 40,000 hand-held flags flew in the stands at Ole Miss’ home football games. To eliminate the flag while respecting First Amendment rights, Ole Miss officials decided to outlaw pointed objects in the stadiums, eliminating umbrellas, corn dogs, and flags on sticks. By 1998, the flags, which had just the year before waived in a sea above the crowd, were gone. Red and blue pom-pons replaced them. It was one of the most important moves the school could make entering the 21st Century.
Within a decade of dropping the flag, Ole Miss’ enrollment doubled from about 10,000 to more than 20,000 students, academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa opened a chapter and the first presidential debate in the 2008 campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama was held on campus.
I am embarrassed to admit that I waved the flag in support of the Ole Miss football team my freshman year, but after studying the history and literature of the region as a Southern Studies major and learning about and paying closer attention to the repugnant association of white supremacy, racial subjugation and the flag, I put it down by my sophomore year.
I recall a photo taken about that time by my friend David Rae Morris, son of My Dog Skip author Willie Morris. In it a black University Police Department officer is surrounded by white students waving Rebel flags. He is composed, professional despite his environment. Every time I see it or think of it I wonder what was going on with the officer internally. What did he tell his wife about his day when he went home that night? Did his environment affect his ability to do his job? Did it reflect on his perception of himself? How did the students treat him? Was it different from his white colleagues? How would I feel if I were in his place? Would I have the same dignity he displayed? How could the students be so rude?
Now, it is time for neo-confederates to follow suit, honestly answer how they would feel if they were disenfranchised, put the flag down, look away from the past and engage in a better future. It’s time to retire the flag to museums, history books, and historically accurate re-enactments. It’s impossible to separate the banner from its use as a hate symbol. It has been co-opted by racists intent on using terrorism and violence to ensure their warped worldview is achieved. It is divisive and causes fear. If we truly believe in the hope that is the United States and the American Dream, the Rebel flag has no place in our society hencefort.