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Confederate flag stirs passions in state where war began


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Some say this is about nothing more than a flag, a piece of trivia and cloth with 13 white stars, two blue stripes and a red field.

Others say it is about history.

Some say the flag represents breakaway states that enslaved millions.

Others say it symbolizes states' rights, and besides, the Union side had slaves, too.

Some say the flag is associated with an army crushed on the field of battle.

Others say it honors the gallantry of men and women who fought and died for what they believed.

Some say it's about race.

Others say it's about heritage.

More than a century after the end of the Civil War, the flying of the Confederate flag continues to both bedevil and beguile the American South. From state to state and year to year, the debate recedes, then rages, unleashing profound feelings of what it means to be a Southerner, both black and white.

Now, the debate has come to South Carolina.

Atop the dome of the South Carolina State House, just beneath the U.S. and state flags, the old Confederate Navy Jack flutters ++ in the breeze. A lot of people, including the mayor and many of the city's business leaders, want the flag taken down, now. A lot of other people, a band of traditionalists and Civil War enthusiasts, want the flag to stay right where it is.

Caught in the middle are two tour guides, Myra Cunningham and Lisa Addison. Each day they lead school children, families and tour groups through the ornate hallways of the State House. They talk of the building's history and its grandeur.

But all the tourists want to talk about is the flag, the Confederate flag. "There are no fence-sitters," Miss Cunningham said.

The tour guides don't offer opinions. Just facts:

That the flag was one of several designs used by the Confederate States of America, the stars representing the 11 states of the Confederacy plus two more the budding nation hoped to call its own. That South Carolina only began flying the banner atop the State House in 1962, ostensibly to celebrate a Civil War centennial but also in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. That hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have adopted the flag as a symbol.

The tourists listen and nod.

A political compromise to take the flag down from the dome but keep it on the State House grounds beside a Confederate war memorial collapsed at the 11th hour of a legislative session earlier this month.

Eight days ago, there was a march on Myrtle Beach organized by the state NAACP to dump the flag. There was a countermarch as hundreds waved Confederate flags. The air was filled with racial epithets.

Hanging over all now is the threat of an economic boycott launched by the state's NAACP -- if the flag is not removed before Labor Day.

Still, the flag flies and interest in the issue soars.

For less than $20, constituents of South Carolina House and Senate members can receive a Confederate flag that has flown over the State House. It used to be easy to get one. Now, there is a waiting list: One thousand, six hundred names, and counting.

History and symbolism, for good or bad, remain powerful forces in the South. Dr. William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, said the flag issue is anything but trivial.

According to Dr. Ferris, the Confederate flag "is a divisive symbol that for blacks symbolizes the flag of their former slave owners. And for whites, it symbolizes a history which is gone. Using the flag is -- by certain groups -- an attempt to rekindle an old world that no longer exists. Like all myths, it is a highly charged emotional image."

The flag was tucked away after the Civil War, but it got a big boost as a 20th-century symbol with the release of the motion picture "Gone With the Wind" in 1939. Soon, Southern soldiers bound for battle in World War II were waving the Confederate flag.

Now, the flag is used by truckers, bikers, football fans and Southern rock groups. And it is used by politicians.

The backlash began in 1983 when black students at the University of Mississippi forced the school to drop the Confederate flag as its official symbol. Alabama and Mississippi would soon eliminate official flying of the flag. But a 1992 bid to remove the Confederate patch incorporated in the Georgia flag was unsuccessful. The issue is sure to come up again as the 1996 Summer Olympics approach in Atlanta.

Now, South Carolina stands as the only state to fly the flag above its Capitol. For Dr. William Gibson, a Greenville dentist and president of the state NAACP, that is simply intolerable. Earlier this year, he watched as a black South African soldier took down an old flag and replaced it with a new flag for a new multiracial country.

Dr. Gibson, a great-grandson of slaves, said those images gave him the idea to push for removal of the Confederate flag here.

"Put the flag in a museum," he said. "Put it in archives. But don't fly it over the State House that is supposed to represent all South Carolinians. You want to fly it over your house, your private club, your bicycle, you have a right. But the South . . . lost."

To Dr. Gibson, the flag does not represent states' rights nor a grand Southern tradition. "It's racism," he said. "The only states' rights these people wanted was to keep my people enslaved."

'Our heritage'

State Sen. Glenn F. McConnell relives the Civil War nearly every day. He owns an art gallery devoted to Civil War prints. He spent $2,000 last year assembling old uniforms so he could participate Civil War re-enactments. His great-great-grandfathers fought for the South.

"The flag represents heritage and identity," he said. "In that flag is our essence and our blood. The soul of our heritage runs through that flag."

He said people in the South, particularly South Carolina, cling to the flag because "the war came home here. Sherman's Army cut a 40-mile scar through Georgia and then turned to South Carolina. . . . The South may have lost, but it still had that heritage of valor, of doing one's duty and answering the call. A certain romanticism grew up."

For those very reasons, Senator McConnell said, the flag continues to endure as a Southern symbol, that "sets us apart, identifies us."

Mr. McConnell said the flag is not a symbol of slavery but rather "a battle emblem." But he acknowledged that its reputation was tattered during the 1950s and 1960s by white supremacist groups. And he said that those who taunted NAACP marchers with the flag in Myrtle Beach "gave the flag a bad name."

At Fort Sumter off Charleston, where the Civil War began, the first Confederate flag with its seven stars and band of bars, and the second Confederate flag with its pure white field and familiar cross tucked in the corner, flap in the breeze.

There is a 33-star American flag here, too.

On a journey north from Charleston to Columbia, the flag emerges here and there on front license plates and front porches -- yet the majority of banners displayed are simply American flags.

In Orangeburg, in the state's rural heart, most of the town's citizens are preoccupied with the opening of the new Wal-Mart, not the flag controversy. But Rickey Hill, chairman of the political science and history department at the predominantly black South Carolina State University, said the flag issue is a harbinger of the state's future.

'The white ideal still rules'

"That flag is flying because it says in South Carolina the white ideal still rules," he said. "It says to corporate developers you can come in this state and still be in charge. That flag represents racial power in this state. South Carolina still has to find its way into the 20th century."

Twenty-three miles up the road in Swansea, a tiny town divided by a railroad track, there is still a great love and respect for the Confederate banner, but also a growing realization that it may be time for the flag to come down from the dome.

"The flag is the symbol of the South, all these years," said Kenneth Raulerson, the town's sole paid firefighter. "I don't think it should come down now. It's been up there ever since I was a little old boy. That flag is as much a part of the South as the American flag. But if it's going to start the Civil War all over again, it's just not worth it."

Finally, in Columbia, at the State House, the flag still flies while politicians and leaders of a black caucus try to craft a compromise. Some have called for a special legislative session to deal with the issue, but that is unlikely in an election year. More likely, the issue will be dealt with when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. Meanwhile, the Republicans have placed the flag issue as a nonbinding resolution on their primary ballot.

Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and others seek to have the issue settled by an arbitrator. "This is a divisive issue that is causing problems," he says. "Why not seek a compromise?"

Meanwhile, it could be a long summer and fall for the State House tour guides. If they had their way, Miss Cunningham -- who is black -- and Ms. Addison -- who is white -- would find another place to fly the Confederate flag. "We are no longer fighting the Civil War," Miss Cunningham said.

Ms. Addison agrees. "We should not fly flags over the State House that divide us," she said. "We should fly flags that unite us."

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