Nearly all around Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, from the walls along
its upper sweeps down to the lower seats, you could see the
Confederate flag dancing at the ends of poles and sticks in the
wet wind. On the field Mississippi was having at Alabama, and in
the stands the Ole Miss fans waved the flag whenever the Rebels
gave them reason to. In the northeast corner of the stadium, a
student section, the Rebel flag was worn on baseball caps, above
the pockets of clean white shirts, on neckties neatly knotted at
the throat. It was everywhere.
No one was chestier in flaunting the banner than Clay Brooks, a
19-year-old banking and finance major from Winona, Miss., who
had painted the Rebel flag in color from below his navel to the
base of his neck. "I wanted to do something different," said
Brooks. "I'm just having fun. If they don't like it, they can
kiss my flag."
This was last Saturday afternoon, in Oxford, Miss., and it
wasn't Mississippi burning again, of course--not as in the
1960s, when civil rights workers were murdered there and
churches went up in flames, and Governor Ross Barnett stood
defiantly in the doors of Ole Miss in a futile attempt to block
James Meredith from becoming the first black student to enroll.
What happened on Saturday suggested, at worst, a straggling band
of Old South adolescents still playing with matches, fascinated
by fire, and, at best, a small army of adults and students
reverting to their terrible twos. (Ask them not to gargle their
milk, and they spill it on the floor.) Crowds at Ole Miss home
football games have been hoisting the Rebel flag for
years--since the Dixiecrats, rebelling against a civil rights
plank, walked out of the 1948 Democratic Convention--but last
week's demonstration of flag-waving was unusually widespread, a
reaction to a recent movement to keep the Confederacy's symbol
out of the stadium.
Complaining that the flag was tarnishing the school's image and
sabotaging his efforts at recruiting blue-chip black
players--rival schools, he says, were using the flag to warn
black athletes away from Oxford--Mississippi football coach
Tommy Tuberville has been urging fans to carry a less divisive
banner, one bearing the letter M studded with stars. Then, on
Oct. 21, the student government passed a resolution urging
students to leave the Rebel flags at home because of the racial
unrest the flags were causing. Finally, for "safety" reasons,
the university administration banned the carrying of
sticks--i.e., flagstaffs of any size--into the stadium,
effective Nov. 1. That made the game against Alabama the last at
which flags on sticks would be allowed in Vaught-Hemingway, and
many fans arrived carrying the Rebel banner to protest the ban.
Ole Miss is a house divided. The flag issue generated a heated
debate at last month's annual meeting of the alumni association.
Under the racially charged heading "Stop the Lynching of Ole
Miss and Southern Heritage," a Jackson, Miss., citizens' group
recently sent out a mailing, with a Confederate flag on the
envelope, asking for money to support its cause. Among those
unfurling the Rebel flag on Saturday, there was much talk about
it as an inspirational symbol of Southern heritage and chivalry,
of Old South pride and tradition. It was like listening to
members of the Flat Earth Society.
The fact is, in its most memorable incarnation at Ole Miss, the
Rebel flag served as the rallying symbol for white students
protesting integration after Meredith was enrolled in 1962, a
lamentable desecration of the banner that Robert E. Lee honored
in battle. Since then the flag has fallen even further: It's
seen most commonly today on the back windows of pickup trucks
and on bikers' denim jackets. Its inflammatory message is so
clear that it cannot mean one thing outside the gates and
another thing within. Today about 12% of the 10,745 students at
Ole Miss are black, including half the football team, and to
those students the meaning of the flag is clear. "It's not a
symbol of tradition but of oppression and exclusion," says
Charles Ross, an assistant professor in Mississippi's
Afro-American studies program.
Symbols, like pointed sticks, can hurt. Strike the colors.