Sunday, October 31, 1999

Rebel flag still excites passions




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WARSAW — Behind every Confederate flag is a man who will go on and on about it. They aren't shy, these guys.

        They hate big government and love Southern grit. They romanticize rebellion. They say today's African-Americans should get over slavery, because it happened so long ago.

        They are people like Paul Crowfoot of Gallatin County, who has Confederate flags on his vehicle and in his house.

        The federal government is out of control, he says. It's keeping guns from law-abiding citizens and giving billions to other countries while ignoring poverty at home.

        “The government is trying to pressure people to be ro bots,” says Mr. Crowfoot, a 32-year-old Teamster truck driver. “They don't want free spirits, leaders with their own minds and their own say so.”

        The Confederate flag isn't about hate, he says. It's a relic from the time Southerners fought back.

        The rest of America isn't so sure. From San Francisco to South Carolina, the flag's public display has outraged some and brought out the stubbornness in others.

        Before the civil rights victories of the '60s, people battled racism in the written law and formal practice of this country. Some lost their lives for the cause. It was easy to see the outrage in Southern degeneracy.

        The Confederate flag, however, is a more ambiguous target. Arguments over its meaning begin to sound like referendums on political correctness.

        In California last year, the United Daughters of the Confederacy were not invited to a July Fourth parade because of their flag. They vowed to sue, claiming violation of free speech.

        In Pittsburgh, African- Americans protested the inclusion of “Dixie” in a high-school band performance with a Civil War theme. They also opposed the drill team's use of a Confederate-like flag.

        In South Carolina, a Rebel flag continues to fly above the capitol, despite this year's boycott of the state's tourism industry by an African-American organization.

        These are murky disputes. Mr. Crowfoot's spin on the flag helps explain why.

        Scattered throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are like-minded folks who display it with impunity. Their isolation — be it geographic or intellectual — keeps them clear of competing ideas. They don't personally know any African-Americans, so it's easy to make sweeping claims, however suspect they sound.

        “We have very few colored people in this area, but the ones who are here don't think anything about (the flag),” says Harold “Bud” Wilson of Florence. He and his wife, Gloria, sell Native American gifts from their White Winds store in Union. A section in the back is devoted to Confederate paraphernalia.

        Here, the flag decorates belt buckles, wallets, rings, pins, shot glasses and earrings. It appears on T-shirts and stickers with messages like these: “Pride, not Prejudice,” “Rebel by Choice,” and “National Association for the Advancement of Rednecks.”

        Mr. Wilson, 67, read a book about the Civil War in Boone County and discovered three of his relatives fought for the South. One chose to stay in a Northern prison rather than sign an oath to put down his arms.

        “Your word meant something then,” Mr. Wilson says.

        His wife is similarly enamored of the South.

        “I've always had this dream of coming down these big, wide steps at a plantation, in the big, wide skirt, the corsets and the whole nine yards,” she says.

        Slavery shouldn't have happened, the couple agrees. But they say the Civil War was about something else.

        “For some reason, (the North) just decided the South would have to do what it said,” Mr. Wilson offers.

        “Everyone should be allowed to do what they want,” says his wife.

        Slavery eventually would have died out, anyway, because people can't be kept down forever, Mr. Wilson says.

        Such a casual view of an abominable institution isn't limited to Kentucky.

        On a tree-lined street in Norwood, Confederate flags hang in the upper windows of a white, two-story house.

        John Weiler, 44, shares the place with his mother. Parts of the inside are painted red or gray. Mr. Weiler has about 30 flags, and his cat is named for Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

        “I guess I'm just fascinated by the Confederacy,” Mr. Weiler says.

        He especially likes to read about the South's John S. Mosby, known as “the Grey Ghost.”

        “As far as I can find out, he's the only one on either side who never lost a battle.”

        Mr. Weiler's adolescent daughter pipes up.

        “My friend thinks it's a prejudiced flag, and she thinks you're prejudiced,” she tells her dad.

        “Well, she's mixed,” he says, referring to the child's racial background.

        “She can say whatever she wants,” he adds.

        When asked flat-out, Mr. Weiler says he isn't racist.

        But such a connection is all too easy to make.

        About five years ago at the National Afro-American History Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, a bomb threat was traced to an individual with swastikas and Confederate flags in his home, says John Fleming. He's executive director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which will open in Cincinnati in 2003.

        Part of the center's mission will be to encourage racial reconciliation. “We'll be talking about some very uncomfortable issues,” Mr. Fleming says. These will include the effect of slavery on race relations today.

        The battle over states' rights was an issue in the Civil War, but only because Southerners owned slaves, Mr. Fleming says. “There's no question that slavery was at the center of the Civil War,” he says.

        Today, African-Americans have made great strides in joining the middle class, but a disproportionate number remain at the bottom. Mr. Fleming sees slavery as part of the cycle.

        “Just as you inherit wealth, and you seem to benefit from generation to generation, I think you can inherit poverty, and it becomes very difficult to break out of poverty,” he says.

        Despite the spin offered by its fans, the Confederate flag will always be associated with America's greatest moral failure.

        Some people just don't seem to mind.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@enquirer.com.

       



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