I don’t usually swing a political bat in this blog, but the events in Charleston compel me this time.
Some of y’all already know this, but I am white. Born and raised in Mississippi. I was a youngster growing up when the state was going through the painful ending of American apartheid called “segregation” or “separate but equal.” I grew up under a state flag that, I was told, paid respect to my heritage and the brave heroes of the Confederacy. For the most part, that was true. My heritage – Scots-Irish Protestants on both sides – included men who fought for the Confederacy, mostly as cavalrymen in northern Mississippi who were fighting to defend their homes and families. And certainly there were heroes of the Confederacy. Like any state flag, it was a ubiquitous emblem of the Magnolia State, flying above government buildings and schools and adorning every school auditorium I ever sat in. It became my symbol of my state.
That flag needs to go.
I will admit I liked the respect it paid to men who had fought – whatever the reason – with brave resolution, much like the larger version, the Confederate battle flag that was, and is, nearly as omnipresent as kudzu and cotton in the South. I owned several growing up. And, being an Ole Miss football fan since I was able to walk, I always thrilled to the sight (on TV or in newspaper photos) of thousands of “Rebel flags” being waved by students and fans at games. We didn’t wave poms-poms; we waved Rebel flags. As a student at Ole Miss, I waved my own for two years, and had a large (5×7) flag hanging from the loft in my dorm room. It never once occurred to me that the flag was anything other than an old battle standard, a symbol of my state and my university. I may have been ignorant and insensitive, but I was not racist, and if you’d said that to me, I would have knocked you on your ass.
Until 1982. That year, my junior year, a young male student named John Hawkins decided to become a cheerleader at Ole Miss. Nothing too unusual about that; we always had several male cheerleaders who seemed the luckiest men in the world, as they were always surrounded by the female cheerleaders.
But John Hawkins was black. And publicly stated that if he were selected, he would not carry nor wave the Rebel flag.
The fury that followed shocked me. Mind you, I was not oblivious to the issue of race. Nobody who grows up in Mississippi can claim that, and I had seen my share of ugly racism already. But, I remember thinking, this is 1982! How can this be?
For a couple of weeks, the campus simmered as students took sides, as students do. Ad hoc protests by fraternity boys and the Black Student Union popped up. Petitions were signed. Things got ugly, with some drunken males screaming epithets from their cars as they careened across campus.
I kept my head down. As a midshipman in the Navy ROTC, participation in political causes was discouraged. I left my flag up. I was confused by the whole scene. But one event changed that.
One night in the early spring, I walked across campus to a basketball game. I crossed the quad in front of the Lyceum – the building that still bore the bullet holes from the day James Meredith had been admitted to the university – and noticed a gathering of students preparing for a planned “spirit rally” – a group of flag supporters that wanted to show everyone that the flag was more about Ole Miss spirit than anything racist.
As I retraced my steps a couple of hours later after the game, the “rally” was kicking off. I stopped for a moment to watch. It only took a couple of minutes before a student – one I knew from the Army ROTC – grabbed a microphone and start screaming, “N—– go home!”
So much for Ole Miss spirit. I remember being disgusted, but what happened next changed me fundamentally. Not far from where I stood, a couple of men raced to the campus flagpole and hoisted the Rebel flag in the place of the United States flag.
I stood there, a young man already committed to serving in the military and defending the United States, with my life if necessary, and these assholes just usurped the symbol of my country with the symbol of their anger. Maybe I was being melodramatic. I don’t know. Then or now. But I do know I went back to my dorm, took down my flag, tore it to shreds and threw it out the 9th floor window. I’ve never owned one since.
And, as if to confirm my decision, not two weeks later, the Ku Klux Klan marched through Oxford carrying, yes, Confederate flags. Ostensibly, in support of the university. The photos of screaming Klansmen waving that flag in that year’s Ole Miss yearbook were as controversial as they were a part of a seismic experience at the university.
The flag needs to go.
I’m proud of my ancestry, yes, and it’s true that you can take the boy out of Mississippi, but you can’t take Mississippi out of the boy. My heart will forever be in the Magnolia State. And I will always honor the service of all my ancestors for their sense of duty. But it’s time to put away hateful things. Whatever the original intent of the flag’s symbolism, it has been co-opted by hatemongers. And hate doesn’t heal. Anyone who claims to want a solution, or at least an improvement, to the race issue in this country, can no longer defend the symbol as one of pride or heritage.
The flag needs to go.