Flag flap stretches beyond South Carolina

While America focuses on the Palmetto State, the debate rages throughout Dixie.

Angel Quintero and Sherman Evans believe in the symbolic power of the Confederate battle flag. But their version of the banner has a subtle twist: It's black, red, and green - the African-American colors of liberation.

Messrs. Quintero and Evans own NuSouth Apparel, a clothing designer and merchandiser located in the cradle of the old Confederacy, Charleston, S.C. The uniquely colored flag is their logo, a symbol of their determination to "tackle the age-old issue of racism ... in America," according to their Web site.

For months, America has trained its eye on the South Carolina State House in Columbia, where protesters and marchers have called for lawmakers to stop flying the flag. But the quest to define what the Confederate flag means to Dixie today is as ubiquitous as flowering Magnolias and goober peas.

From NuSouth to NASCAR races, the flag is perhaps the most potent reminder of the clash between the forces of change shaping the New South and the traditions binding the old.

For now, the flag remains an institutional symbol of the South - whether at state capitols or city halls. But as more newcomers of all races arrive, with no ties to a controversial past, pressure is mounting for the region to reconsider the appropriateness of one its most cherished emblems.

Dixie's dilemma

At the South Carolina capitol, this tension has led to a compromise plan: The flag would be taken down from the State House and placed on the front lawn to honor Confederate dead. Even this has met with opposition.

Elsewhere, the flag has come under similar scrutiny.

*Earlier this month, the Jackson, Miss., City Council voted to condemn the Confederate flag and any flag that incorporated it. That means the Mississippi state flag, which includes the battle flag in its upper-left corner, will not be displayed in council chambers.

*In Alabama, where the Confederate battle flag is flown every April 26 for the state's Confederate Memorial Day, the Legislature has proposed replacing the battle flag with the first national flag of the Confederacy. Proponents hope the national flag - which is similar to the American flag - will evoke less acrimony.

*In Georgia, where the state flag also incorporates the battle flag, protests before the Super Bowl this year demanded that the flag be changed. Yet legislators have not moved to replace it.

Georgia incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its state flag in 1956, and South Carolina started flying the battle flag in 1962. Some historians say the timing was largely a reaction to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which struck down segregation.

Indeed, "rallying round the flag," they add, has been common when whites have felt threatened by outside forces.

"It was in the 1890s that Mississippi added the battle flag insignia to its state flag," says Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, N.C. "That was at the same time Mississippi was taking the vote away from black men, and that was the same time Confederate monuments were going up at courthouses all over the place."

The flag's defenders, however, refute that version of events. Concerning Georgia and South Carolina, "everything I've seen indicates the flags were changed for the Civil War centennial," says Collin Pulley, chairman of the Heritage Defense Committee of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

As chairman of the committee, Mr. Pulley's job is to make sure the flag is properly handled and respected. He says he has no use for hate groups and reactionary organizations that use the flag as a symbol of racist dogma.

But Pulley, whose ancestors fought in the Civil War and did not own slaves, also says he doesn't see the flag as something representing racism, either. He's most concerned that removing flags will mean forgetting history.

"Anytime a flag is moved or hidden, the public sees it as something wrong with it," he says. He worries that it will set a precedent, and street and school names will be the next to go.

Business sense

In the end, what might prompt states to remove the Confederate battle emblem from public areas is that it's just not good business.

One South Carolina representative acknowledges receiving pressure from BMW and Michelin, two corporations in his district, to remove the flag. The New South has built its economic revival on attracting well-paying, high-tech clients, and those companies don't like controversy.

"If I were a high-tech CEO, I would say, 'What? I'm going to move my integrated workforce to ... to work under the Confederate flag?' " says Glenda Gilmore, a history professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The diverse South

Professor Gilmore, an eighth-generation North Carolinian, has no problem with private citizens doing what they like with the flag. But a state flag, she says, should represent a state's citizenry.

"Southerners come in lots of different colors and lots of different heritages," she says. "You can't just pick one ... and call it the flag of all people."

She also adds one more reason, perhaps uniquely Southern, to drop the flag: "Besides, it's just plain bad manners."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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