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Southern pride and T-shirts that divide

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / August 10, 2001



CAIRO, GA.

Ten minutes after dropping her niece off at Cairo High, Kim Harrison's cellphone chirped. It was Nicole, calling from the principal's office: "Can you come and pick me up? They're sending me home."

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The sprightly sophomore didn't get busted for wearing a pair of short-shorts or showing off her bellybutton. What disturbed administrators enough to send Nicole and eight other students home was a Confederate logo on their shirts.

Ms. Harrison couldn't have been more surprised. Only a few years ago, she herself had worn the St. Andrew's Cross as a student at the same school - and had swung the battle flag as part of Cairo's "Pride of Dixie" band.

What she found out is that the Grady County School Board is far from alone in banning Dixie bandannas and forcing students to scratch Confederate icons off car bumpers: From Ohio to Kentucky, scores of districts have banned such items, claiming they cause disruptions.

Since Georgia's state flag, featuring a full-sized St. Andrew's Cross, came down in January, six Georgia communities have cracked down on Hank Williams and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts. "The Rebels" of one Southern high school now wave a "spirit flag" instead of the battle flag.

But instead of easing the tension, such moves seem to have only raised the stakes in the South. In fact, the notion of subjugating the Confederacy in the schools is too much for Harrison and hundreds of other parents. As a result, Southerners with family ties to the Confederacy have filed more than 60 legal actions against T-shirt bans - and have even filed civil rights complaints with the US Department of Justice. More lawsuits are expected as schools open across the South in the next month.

"This is more than a backlash to an affront of Southern heritage; it's a revolution," says Kirk Lyons, director of the Southern Legal Resource Center in North Carolina.

School administrators, however, say they have no choice: As the flag battle heated up here in Georgia, challenges and threats began to flare in classrooms from Savannah to Iron City. Earlier this year, teachers had to separate black and white students ready to fight over a Confederate T-shirt at Seminole County High School (SCHS) in Donalsonville.

Donalsonville administrators see bans as necessary to maintain harmony, and have by no means singled out the Confederate flag. In the mid-1980s, the district banned "Black Panthers" T-shirts after white and black students fought. At one high school, a brawl broke out over a Malcolm X shirt. Unlike in many districts, racial animosity remains: Five years ago, tensions began flaring when a white student wore a T-shirt featuring the battle flag that said: "You've got your 'X', I've got mine."

"We have to have a way to maintain order," says Seminole County Superintendent Larry Bryant. "We're not simply picking on the Confederate shirts."

At the same time, many historians say that it's time to let go of symbols that have simply taken on too much negative meaning for too many people. "I'm a Southerner with credentials: My grandfather fought in the Civil War," says William Holmes, a history professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. "But that flag is very divisive, and it's a fact that it's offensive to many African-American people."

But for Harrison, who grew up listening to her grandmother tell tales of Confederate soldiers, the symbol is important. "We're being told that our history is something to be ashamed of," she says. "And that's not acceptable."

Over in Donalsonville, Eric Williams proffers another view. The SCHS graduate understands why black students take offense. While their parents may not have talked about it out of fear, he says today's youths refuse to accept such symbols of oppression. "We had to suffer under that flag," says Mr. Williams. "To us, it reeks of the KKK and bigotry."

His friend Napoleon Chrispen agrees - to a point. "Out here, a man should be able to wear whatever he wants," says Mr. Chrispen. "But when you're in a public building, it's another story."

While courts have been ruling on this since 1972, there is still no clear mandate for tearing down the Confederate flag - or leaving it up. Some federal district courts have upheld bans. But others have ruled in favor of individual rights. One court in Marysville, Tenn., awarded a student a cash settlement along with the right to wear his Hank Williams T-shirt. "The rulings are all over the place on this," says Gerry Weber, legal director of the Georgia ACLU. "It's a free-speech issue, and it hinges on the schools being wrong to ban a symbol that is sanctioned by the state."

The ruling here came two weeks ago from a US District Court judge in southwestern Georgia, who upheld the ban of Confederate regalia in Donalsonville - at least for the moment. Another hearing on the matter is planned for later this year.

To add further confusion to the situation, the emblem students aren't allowed to wear sways in the breeze 70 feet above the school buildings - as part of a redesigned Georgia state flag featuring a downsized cross.

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