Originally created 03/19/00

All things southern: Symbolism

AIKEN -- Amid trendy seasonal banners and an occasional Stars and Stripes, a South Carolina secession flag flies on a quiet residential street in Houndslake subdivision.

It's a silent commentary on how little some symbols mean to people who don't recognize them and how intensely they can affect people who do.

Passers-by -- even those who are inflamed or inspired by Confederate emblems -- barely give more than a curious glance toward the unfamiliar forked flag with a white crescent moon and star on a blood-red field. But it is laden with meaning for its owner, nuclear security officer Jay Mowery, who wants to see "a free South Carolina in the 21st century."

The next step, he says, is a free Southern nation.

The Aiken man, who is chairman of the League of the South in South Carolina, thinks the state that seceded first, in 1860, ought to be first to do it again. The flag in his yard is like the one that flew over the customshouse in Charleston the day that South Carolina seceded from the Union. It was designed to express growing public sentiment that the Palmetto State should be in charge of its own affairs and its own destiny. The crescent, a South Carolina symbol since revolutionary days, is upside down -- a distress signal.

The secession banner is re-emerging during contentious debate over a more familiar and controversial Confederate flag on the Capitol dome in South Carolina, last state to fly an emblem of the Confederacy on its seat of government. Another banner cropping up on bumpers and home flagpoles amid the fray is the state flag with a red background instead of blue, the banner that Citadel cadets carried when they fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. It, too, is but a curiosity to people who don't perceive its significance or to people who don't care.

That's also true of the First National Flag of the Confederacy, because it does not incorporate the St. Andrew's cross most often identified as the Confederate emblem for which feelings run pridefully deep for some and painfully deep for others.

WITH A CRITICAL national spotlight on South Carolina while the Legislature resisted an NAACP economic boycott meant to pressure the flag down, Mr. Mowery thought it was time to put assaults on symbols in perspective. He contacted his local state representative, newly elected Republican Robert "Skipper" Perry of Aiken, about an article from the Irish Echo, a New York-based newspaper geared to Irish-American readers.

Mr. Perry couldn't believe what he was reading. When he shared it with other legislators, "Most people thought it was a joke," he said.

"They'd just roll their eyes and say, `What's next?"' he said.

The report, later confirmed by the Boston Globe, South Boston Tribune and several other media, said Boston Housing Authority had asked tenants not to display shamrocks and other "bias indicators" that offend minority residents. The request came out of a mediation session in which residents were asked to list symbols that made them feel "uncomfortable and unwelcome."

"In response to those concerns, we're including shamrocks along with swastikas, Confederate flags and other symbols which may give offense," said Linda Agro, the housing authority's communications director.

IN A WAVE OF outrage that followed, the housing authority backtracked. There never was a policy about shamrocks, Ms. Agro said, and the purpose of the discussion was to let people "tell other people the importance of symbols to them and what they mean culturally."

As part of the backlash last August, an Asian writer in Jewish World Review dredged up other examples of "politically correct crusades" that "trivialize serious violations of civil rights." One involved complaints about Dinky, the burrito-loving chihuahua in Taco Bell commercials.

Bullying people into "insult avoidance" doesn't change the past and makes it only harder to prevent discrimination in the future, Michelle Malkin wrote. "Ultimately, the problem with indiscriminate complainers isn't the color of their skin. It's the thinness."

Although Mr. Mowery agrees with that sentiment and believes it applies to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he wanted South Carolina lawmakers to see another element of the shamrock shambles. The emblem of Ireland has a religious significance. Celtic legend says St. Patrick used the three leaves on one stem to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

A religious legend also is attached to the St. Andrew's cross, the basic design of the Confederate battle flag. St. Andrew is said to have been nailed on a cross upside down. His legacy of defiant faith, bravery and honor is cherished in Celtic tradition. And Southern culture is essentially Celtic.

"I don't see this as an attack on the flag," Mr. Mowery said. "The flag is a piece of cloth. I don't think it's about supposedly being racist. It is an attack on biblical Christianity. The egalitarian liberals, socialists and lap dogs in the NAACP deny it, but they are out to destroy the last remaining region that stands for biblical Christianity."

THE GOVERNMENT THAT the League of the South would establish has overtly Christian underpinnings, described with its other tenets in the 1995 New Dixie Manifesto: States' Rights Will Rise Again, written by its founders.

"We believe it is time for the people of the Southern states to take control of their own governments, their own institutions, their own culture, their own communities and their own lives," it says, outlining what that means on the state, local, personal and spiritual levels.

"On the spiritual level, we take our stand squarely within the tradition of Christianity," the manifesto says. "This historic faith, though everywhere attacked by the hollow men of modernity, has always been central to the pursuit of personal political liberty and human charity. Asking only for the religious freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, we oppose the government's campaign against our Christian traditions.

"The war that is being waged against the Southern identity and its traditional symbols must cease.... We do not claim that all our ancestors were infallible or even honorable in all their actions, but we utterly repudiate the one-sided and hypocritical movement to demonize Southerners and their symbols."

A prevalent fear among flag supporters -- on or off the Capitol dome -- is that the ultimate goal is "cultural genocide," erasure of all things Southern.

Some organizations, including the League of the South and the Southern Legal Resource Center, are urging people to check the "other" box where the Census 2000 asks for ethnic origin, then write in "Confederate Southerner." They say it's one way to stand up for who they are and perhaps a way to get Southerners officially recognized as a minority, entitled to legal protection.

THE LEAGUE OF South has a campaign of its own to "take the flag down" -- but it's a different flag and yet another twist on symbols. The rationale is that the American flag doesn't belong on public property that is not owned or controlled by the federal government. Removing it would reassert the sovereignty of states as expressed in the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That's the amendment that says the states retain all rights that are not specifically delegated to the central federal government -- an important issue for people who believe the federal government is tyrannical, overbearing, too big, too powerful and too meddlesome in local affairs.

"That's what our ancestors fought against in the Revolutionary War and the First War for Southern Independence," Mr. Mowery said. It's what secessionists are talking about when they say, "Now more than ever."

Beyond that, "the American flag is a symbol of tyranny," in his view.

"If your ancestors came from Africa, and you want to hate a piece of cloth," Mr. Mowery said, "you should know that from 1776 to 1868, the ships that carried slaves to this country were Northeastern ships that sailed under the American flag. It is the flag that flew over states outside the South where there were slaves.

"If your ancestors were red men, especially Cherokees, and they walked the Trail of Tears, you should remember what flag it was under -- the Stars and Stripes. Soldiers in blue uniforms did that to your people.

"If your ancestors were Confederates, you should remember that (Union Gen. William Tecumseh) Sherman did such a good job exterminating Southern people and destroying their property that he was sent to do the same thing to the Indians and next to the Filipinos, all under the Stars and Stripes.

"If your ancestors were Chinese, you should remember that the Chinese were economic slaves in this country. The Augusta Canal was built by Chinese peasants who were considered to have less value than African slaves.

"IF OUR ANCESTORS were Japanese-Americans, born in California, speaking English and not Japanese, ask yourself what flag flew over the concentration camps where they were forced to live during World War II.

"Even today, under the American flag, the government is committing atrocities against its own citizens that the Geneva Conventions would not allow against a foreign enemy. There was no need for citizens to die at Waco and Ruby Ridge."

And while one criticism of the Confederate flag is that it was used by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Klan well into the 20th century was a major political force. Klansmen by the hundreds marched by invitation in inaugural parades for Franklin Delano Roosevelt carrying American flags.

"The Klan also used the Christian cross and the Bible, but those are not vilified because of that association," Mr. Mowery said. "Neither is the American flag."

He thinks that's because the cross, the Bible and the Stars and Stripes are all symbols that are revered elsewhere, while the Confederate flag is uniquely Southern.

"This fight is all about our culture," he says. "Getting rid of our symbols is an important step toward erasing our cultural identity. Don't believe for one minute that the people who want to eliminate Southern culture don't understand the power of symbols."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.


To read The New Dixie Manifesto and other position papers of The League of The South, visit www.dixienet.org. The South Carolina League of the South Web site is at www.palmetto.org. Each site has a link to the other.


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