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Why Is Symbol of Confederacy Flying?

June 23, 1996|Trey Ellis | Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter and essayist. He is the author of "Platitudes" (Vintage Contemporaries) and "Home Repairs" (Simon & Schuster) and his screenplays include "The Tuskegee Airmen."

With less than a month before the opening ceremony of the summer Olympic Games, the South, so eager to show the world its shiny new multicultural self, will instead be showing it a more shopworn one. I am not just talking about the more than three dozen black churches burned by arson. I am talking about yet another example of seemingly pre-civil-rights-style white racism: The Confederate battle emblem will officially wave over many of Atlanta's Olympic venues, including the Georgia Dome, while America's Dream Team will be inside torching its international competition like Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once torched the city itself.

As one of the many state buildings being commandeered for the Olympics, the Georgia Dome will fly the Georgia state flag, and two-thirds of the Georgia state flag happens to be the cross of St. Andrews--better known as the Confederate battle emblem. Furthermore, this provocative symbol is not some historic vestige of the Confederacy, but was tacked on to the state flag a century later--in 1956. It was the state Legislature's none-too-subtle way of protesting the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Eventually, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina followed Georgia's lead.

The Georgia Coalition to Change the Flag, a group including black state elected officials, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rainbow Coalition, labor and Jewish organizations, is planning demonstrations, of course. But it could be that, after the derision heaped on Jesse Jackson for his Academy Award protest, the days of placards and minimarches are behind us. And like this year's Oscars, what makes an Olympic protest all the more awkward is that these Atlanta Olympics are the "blackest" in history. Bill Campbell, the current mayor of Atlanta, and former mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young spearheaded the campaign to get the city the Olympics in the first place. Little Richard, B.B. King and the Morehouse and Spelman College glee clubs are all to be part of the opening ceremonies.

The same coalition complained loudly in 1994, when the state hosted the Super Bowl, yet the then state overseer of the Georgia Dome insisted, "It is our state flag and we have no problem with it." Thus the symbol of slavery waved over the year's finest black and white football players.

The issue boils down to: What does that flag represent? Is it, as some Civil War reenacters might insist, simply a proud symbol of their historic determination and defiance? Or, more simply, is it a Southern swastika? Is there anything benign about "Gone With the Wind"--which portrays slavery as merely steady employment?

Alabama state Sen. Charles Davidson recently introduced a bill trying to get the rebel flag flying again over the Capitol. Davidson said the Bible justified the enslavement of blacks, and that slavery wasn't so bad but propaganda like "Roots" made it seem worse than it really was.

I'm a black Northerner (whose ancestors escaped from Selma, Ala., at the outbreak of the Civil War), so you know where I stand. I would hope that not only African Americans but all Americans sympathetic to the unimaginable pain of slavery and the continuing evil of white supremacy, would have a hard time celebrating the enduring symbol of one of the world's longest-running crimes against humanity.

On this one issue, white supremacist, antigovernment hate groups seem to agree with me. The Confederate battle emblem (it was never the Confederacy's national flag) is even more popular than the Nazi swastika among American white extremists. Many Klansmen have mothballed their hoods in favor of camouflage jumpsuits and baseball caps sporting the rebel flag. The skinheads, Aryan Nation, patriot, freemen and militia movements all talk of blacks and other U.S. minorities as "mud people" and seem to worship the Confederacy as a glorious experiment in armed insurrection. For the last days of their 81-day standoff, the freemen--who proclaimed, "When we move into a new land, we are to kill all the inhabitants of the other races,"--replaced their upside-down U.S. flag with the, you guessed it, rebel cross and stars. And Montana, about as north as you can get in this country, wasn't even a state during the Civil War!

The vitriolic response of many white Southerners to removing that flag from over many state Capitols is a bellwether to the poisonous climate in which our nation now finds itself. Can there be any doubt that there is at least an ideological connection between the now nearly weekly burnings of black churches and the hate spewed by the Aryan Nation and the militias?

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