News & Observer | newsobserver.com | Ceremony salutes flag and its cause

Published: Mar 05, 2006 12:30 AM
Modified: Mar 09, 2006 08:15 AM

Ceremony salutes flag and its cause

They sang "Dixie" in the white-columned House chamber of the historic State Capitol on Saturday, gathering to hear a fierce defense of their Confederate heritage.

An all-white crowd that numbered more than 100 people, they also stood to salute the colors marched in by three men wearing the rough gray cloth of Confederate soldiers -- an American flag, the state flag that flew over North Carolina during the Civil War and the Rebel battle banner with its familiar blue X of stars on a field of bright red.

Those salutes marked the start of a Confederate Flag Day commemoration sponsored by the N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Though restrained and reverential, the annual ceremony also represented another muffled salvo in the ongoing Southern culture war over the symbols of the Confederacy and what they stand for, said Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Outside in the bright winter sun, the less familiar and racially inflammatory Stars and Bars of the first national flag of the Confederacy snapped in the breeze over the north wing of the Capitol, a banner that some historians say was designed by North Carolinian Orren Randolph Smith and first flown over Louisburg in 1861.

But inside the chamber, Clyde Wilson, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, made it clear that honoring the Confederate soldier is indelibly linked to vindicating the cause of the Confederacy itself.

"If we allowed the cause that the Confederate soldier fought for to be condemned, it would be impossible to defend their good name," Wilson said. "You all know there's a vicious campaign against all things Southern. It's not really the flag they hate, it's not really the Confederacy -- it's us, it's the South."

During the past two decades, there has been a series of bitter battles about public displays of these racially charged Confederate emblems, which many whites see as commemorations of an honorable heritage.

But for many blacks -- and more than a few whites -- flying any Confederate flag over the state capitol is an offensively official endorsement of the Confederacy's defense of slavery and the era of white supremacy and lynch mob violence that followed.

Muted N.C. debates

North Carolina has largely avoided the Confederate flag controversy that has boiled over in other Southern states, ever since former Gov. Jim Hunt decided to replace the Rebel battle banner with the less offensive Stars and Bars over the Capitol, as mandated by state law for Confederate Memorial Day (May 10) and Robert E. Lee's birthday (Jan. 19).

That hasn't exempted the state from public scraps over other Confederate symbols. The latest conflict flared almost two weeks ago when a predominantly black grass-roots community group called for the removal of a towering Confederate memorial that has stood on a corner of the Pitt County Courthouse grounds in Greenville since 1914.

In essence, Brundage said, clashes over Rebel battle banners and monuments to the Confederate dead are also a reflection of the relatively recent emergence of a muscular black viewpoint that challenges the traditional white interpretation of Southern history, said Brundage, author of "The Southern Past: A Clash Of Race and Memory."

Other academics say modern-day tension about Southern history can be defused by erecting public memorials to civil rights heroes or the slaves who helped build the antebellum South -- such as the display recently unveiled at UNC-CH. Don't knock down Silent Sam, the Confederate soldier statue who stands guard at the UNC campus; build new monuments to other portions of the Southern saga, they say.


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Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at (919) 829-8955 or jim.nesbitt@newsobserver.com.

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