I am uncomfortable seeing the Confederate flag.
When I was a teenager, several members of my family drove to Louisiana from Houston for a special ceremony honoring one of my grandmother’s ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and was being reinterred in a cemetery near where he was born. In all honesty, when I think back, only three details jump out in my memory about the ceremony: listening to one of the worst bagpipers I have ever heard, a few re-enactors in gray uniforms that looked way too hot for Louisiana heat, and feeling uncomfortable with there being entirely too many Confederate flags on display.
Growing up in Texas, I wasn’t a stranger to the flag. Aside from learning about it in history class, you can’t live in a Southern state and not get used to seeing it in different places – as stickers on vehicles, waving in front yards, or adorning the shirts of men, women, and children. Then there were the representations in popular culture ranging from Civil War movies to television shows to modern-day examinations and debates about the flag in both fiction and nonfiction.
The Confederate flag was an inescapable part of life in the South, although not in my household. I don’t remember any big discussions about it growing up, but my Mom saw it as a symbol of division and said it wasn’t welcome in our home.
When I moved to North Carolina for my first job working for a professional newspaper, the Civil War became much more of an interactive topic. I was assigned to cover battle re-enactments and living history events that would see me interacting with a great many history enthusiasts, many of them wearing gray or navy uniforms.
Of course, my experience in North Carolina was only a warm-up for what I would experience as a reporter in Winchester, Virginia, which is estimated to have changed hands upwards of 70 times during the war. Compounding that, I lived there smack-dab in the middle of the war’s sesquicentennial, so everything that could be remembered in a re-enactment, lecture, documentary, tour, or book release seemed to be something I was sent to cover.
When I came to Powhatan, I began covering the Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies held at the Huguenot Springs Cemetery, which I have found for the most part to be events focused on honoring the fallen soldiers buried there and in other places around the nation.
Throughout it all, the Confederate flag has been there. It’s not something I chose, but it is not something I actively fought against either.
In my opinion, the Confederate flag does not belong in Powhatan County Public Schools in any capacity except a history classroom, where, hopefully, the Civil War is being taught with great depth and understanding of present-day correlations.
At the end of June, the Diverse Hands at Work student group sent a well-argued letter to Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, asking that the Confederate flag be banned from being worn or displayed on school property. They argued it is a symbol of “racism, discrimination, divisiveness, and hate” and said they do not feel safe in school when it is being displayed or worn there.
The school board was scheduled to discuss this issue at its July 28 meeting and possibly make a decision about it in August. When they do make that decision, I also believe the school board should ban the Confederate flag in schools in any capacity except legitimate educational uses.
I am a staunch believer in the 1st Amendment and the need to protect freedom of speech, even when people are saying things or displaying symbols that I do not agree with and wish would fade into history.
But I also believe that schools have the right and the duty to create a learning environment where students can learn and thrive without feeling intimidated or threatened.
I am not talking about “coddling” students or failing to prepare them for the real world, where they are likely to see plenty of things that offend them. A board member’s suggestion that they might consider banning clothing with images or wording of any kind to try to completely avoid offending people is overkill and not what this is about. Throughout my life, I distinctly remember times when different groups argued to ban the Smurfs, Rainbow Brite, rainbows, unicorns, Power Rangers, and Harry Potter, usually arguing it offended them on religious grounds. This is not that argument.
I said at the beginning of this column that I am uncomfortable seeing the Confederate flag, and that is true. What also is true is that I have never had to be afraid of it. But then, looking at the color of my skin, I have never had to be afraid of it.
For the purpose of this column already being really long, I am not going to go into the arguments about the reasons for the Civil War or the debate of states’ rights versus slavery. Because the use of the Confederate battle flag, as this particular flag would more accurately be described, did not cease when the Civil War ended in 1865. It also was used by different generations in the last 155 years in many different ways – and at least part of that involved being used in efforts related to white supremacy and racial oppression.
In particular, the flag was taken up in the 1930s and 1940s as an important segregationist symbol and was used widely by the Ku Klux Klan, which worked for decades to intimidate and terrorize African Americans in the South. Today, the Confederate flag persists in being used as a popular symbol by members of the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists groups, and neo-Nazis.
Powhatan County Public Schools has been entrusted by Powhatan citizens to educate its students, and I would argue that also should include the history of the Confederate flag, both during the war and in the time since. But beyond education, the schools also are charged with protecting and empowering students, and part of that is accomplished by working to create an environment where they are not continually confronted with an image that makes some of them feel unsafe.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.