School Climate & Safety

Battle Flag T-Shirts Divide Ga. School

By John Gehring — October 30, 2002 6 min read
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Here in north Georgia, where the Civil War dead have slept for more than a century, the timeless bones of history, heritage, and race have been stirred by a battle over Confederate-flag clothing at a local high school.

When the principal of Cherokee High School prohibited students last month from wearing a popular line of Confederate-themed clothing after a few African- American parents and students complained, protests erupted in this growing community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

About 100 students— many with the support of their parents—came to school wearing the banned clothing manufactured by Dixie Outfitters. Parents and members of groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans organized outside the school in front of television cameras, waving the battle flag that is the best-known emblem of the Confederacy. People spoke up at a board meeting wearing shirts with such slogans as “These Colors Don’t Run.”

The passionate response to the ban shows how difficult it is for school administrators to deal with the volatile issue of the Confederate flag. Most federal courts, however, have sided with administrators who prohibit displays of the symbol. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice declined to hear cases involving students who were disciplined for displaying the flag.

Bill Sebring, the principal of the 1,800-student high school 35 miles north of Atlanta, says that he understands the frustration over his decision, but that his rationale was simple. “If it’s disruptive to the learning environment, that’s the key to me,” said Mr. Sebring, 42, a soft- spoken Florida native who mingles easily with his students and rarely closes his office door. “We’re focused on student achievement, and anything that distracts from that goal we have to deal with.”

Some principals in Georgia, in particular, moved to ban Confederate symbols after the state legislature, responding to intense pressure from civil rights groups, changed the state flag last year to minimize the Confederate emblem.

In a letter sent home to parents, Mr. Sebring wrote that while the flag is a “symbol of Southern heritage and tradition for some,” it represents “racial prejudice and divisiveness for others.” He now meets occasionally with a student advisory committee to give students with different perspectives on the decision a forum to air their opinions.

Meanwhile, the principal plays down the hundreds of hateful e-mails he has received in reaction to his policy. “Most of those people are from outside the community,” he said.

Other high school principals in the 27,200-student Cherokee County public schools have banned Dixie Outfitters clothes with little controversy. The district’s dress code prohibits “emblems, insignias, badges, tattoos, or other symbols” that disrupt the school environment. But principals have the discretion to make individual judgments about what types of dress fall under that category.

Michael McGowan, a spokesman for the district, said it supports Mr. Sebring’s decision.

“This isn’t a Southern-heritage issue,” he said. “It’s an issue of the disruption of the learning environment.”

Once a rural mill town, Canton has grown into a suburban area with strip malls and housing developments. While the community has a growing Hispanic presence, the population is mainly white and politically conservative. There’s a small-town Southern feel: It’s the kind of place where people greet each other by first name, Northerners are still called Yankees, and the Civil War is known as the War for Southern Independence.

Southern Pride

Rain falls hard as Richard Shooltz sips a Budweiser and cracks peanuts at the bar inside the Longhorn Steak House. Mr. Shooltz, a heavy-equipment operator, doesn’t have children at Cherokee High, but he knows all about the dispute at the school.

“To me, when they wear the Malcolm X hats, no one gets upset,” Mr. Shooltz said. “But someone wears the Confederate flag, and you’re a big racist redneck. People fought and died under that flag. It’s not racist.”

Black students, he adds, wear outfits from the FUBU clothing line, which stands for “For Us By Us.” The New York City-based company produces popular hip-hop- style clothing. FUBU clothing, which is also worn by some white students, is not prohibited in Cherokee County schools because it carries no symbol or ideological message considered disruptive.

Clothes or hats with Malcolm X symbols, however, are prohibited in the school system.

Peggy Ray-Simpson, whose daughter Ree is a senior at Cherokee High and wears Dixie Outfitters clothes, says her daughter’s style of dress has nothing to do with expressing contempt for African-Americans. “We’re not living back then. I had nothing to do with slavery,” said Ms. Ray-Simpson, who is retired and substitute-teaches for the district.

She believes that if other groups at the school, such as Hispanics, can show their ethnic pride with Mexican flags or by celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, Southern heritage should have equal time. “Our principal is not from our community, and he doesn’t have real Southern roots,” Ms. Ray-Simpson said. “You have to be politically correct these days about everything except Southern culture.”

A revival of the Confederate flag started in the late 1940s with the “Dixiecrat” movement, when some Southern politicians bolted from the Democratic Party because of a civil rights plank in its platform, said Scott Poole, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, S.C.

Over the years, such sentiments have evolved into “almost a neo-Confederate movement,” he said, that seeks to “detach the experience of the Confederacy from slaveholding and the subsequent history of lynching and segregation.”

“But that’s different from what the Confederates themselves would have said,” Mr. Poole continued. “In the 1860s, white Southerners made no bones about the fact that this [slavery] is what they were fighting for. But now there is a desire to revise that and say it was about a constitutional question.”

Jesus and the Flag

Dixie Outfitters, based in Odum, Ga., produces about 650 T-shirt designs, all of which have the Confederate battle flag incorporated with other images, as varied as deer, trucks, and kittens.

Dewey Barber, the owner of the company, said he was outraged by the ban on Confederate-themed attire at Cherokee High. By his count, more than 35 lawsuits have been filed over such decisions by schools.

“We believe the students’ rights to expression are being trampled,” he said. “To me personally, the larger crime is what I call a mind crime against students. The school is saying to them, ‘Your heritage is second-rate.’ ”

So many schools have banned Confederate-flag clothing that Dixie Outfitters makes a T-shirt just for them. It reads, “Jesus and the Confederate Battle Flag: Banned From Our Schools But Forever in Our Hearts.”

Over at Cherokee High, students eating chicken sandwiches and mashed potatoes in the cafeteria have mixed opinions about the controversy. Many were upset with the protesters who showed up outside their school waving Confederate flags, and they believe the issue has received too much attention.

Others feel that while most students get along well, the debate highlights the undercurrent of tension between racial and ethnic groups. The school’s enrollment is 91 percent white, 4 percent black, and 5 percent Hispanic.

Nakita Lochard, 15, agreed with the principal’s decision to prohibit Dixie Outfitters. “It brings you back to another past,” the African- American junior said. “We’re in 2002. We don’t need to go through that again. We have the American flag, so just get rid of [the Confederate flag].”

Another black junior, Melanie Thomas, concurred. “They waved it in the war when they were for slavery,” she said. “It offends me, because I feel the pain of my grandparents.”

Bubbah Abernathy, who likes the clothing line, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. The junior thinks students who disagree about the Confederate symbol can still get along. “We don’t let a shirt come between our friendship,” said Mr. Anthony, who is white.

For Brandon Poole, a football player with a blond goatee, the symbol is part of Southern history.

“It’s not against anybody. It’s not like people are running around in hoods,” he said. “We’re not hurting anybody.”

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