My Confederate battle flag went in a box last week.
Not because of Charleston and not because of any comment, pressure or posting. It was just time.
Mom is moving and the set of Confederate soldiers — including the finger-sized flag bearer — from my old bedroom went into a box with their Union counterparts, Robert the Bruce’s highlanders, vikings, knights of all ages and origins, a squad of the 101st Airborne, Washington’s continental’s and a small host of other assorted warriors.
Times change, and the house I grew up in will soon be home to someone else and some things needed to be boxed up.
As a boy, that little flag in his hand was something I drew pride in for where I lived and for my ancestors who had fought under it. I felt the same for the tiny flag on the other side of my imaginary battle lines, for the exact same reasons.
I remember the first time I realized the flag held by the little gray figure meant much more than anything a boy could really grasp. It stood side-by-side with a flag bearing the Nazi swastika, in the forefront of a Ku Klux Klan rally being covered on the evening news. It looked dirty and dark in that setting and I was mad at the man in the white robe, who had corrupted my little flag without really knowing why.
Looking back now, I smiled at the innocence of youth and wished the universe was still so simple as he went into the box.
Times change, and the truth is symbols can change because our perceptions of them can alter, grow and diminish.
In 1935, the swastika was a political symbol akin to the Republican elephant or the Democrats’ donkey. It was used at political rallies in Britain and the United States as the Nazi party attempted to form fledgling political foot holds abroad. It took a decade for it to transform to first a symbol of an enemy of the United States and then — when the veil of secrecy was ripped away from the death camps — for it to become a symbol of monstrous racism and hatred.
At that same time, the majority of Civil War veterans were gone — the last documented Confederate veteran was Private Pleasant Riggs Crump, of Talladega County, Ala., who died Dec. 31, 1951 — and their children and grandchildren — family who knew those men directly saw that Confederate battle flag as something personal to honor dad or grandpa. In that way, in the reverence of a cemetery, it still is.
It was also at that same time that legend says Maryville football coach Dean Bailey called his team “a bunch of rebels” after learning of suspensions and sanctions from the state’s governing athletic body. He infamously interrupted the Pistol Creek Rivalry in 1935 by playing a seven-game schedule made up entirely of out-of-state teams in defiance of those same authority figures who attempted to ban Maryville from playing any football games that fall.
Bailey and his generation were 80 years closer to the end of the Civil War than we are now. Maybe he understood how his statement would take root, but I doubt it.
Even if he did, times change. The Battle Flag of the Army of the Northern Virginia, what has however erroneously been christened as the Rebel flag in our modern culture, doesn’t carry the same meaning to the masses it did 80, 60, or 40 years ago. It’s become akin to the swastika as a pride banner for those who would rather murder those different in any way from their ideal self image than tolerate or even recognize them as fellow and equal members in the tribe of man.
In the last few days, the rather wool gathering side debate on that flag has reached Blount County. What actions Maryville might take on students waving the battle flag at away games (no flags or flag poles are allowed in Shields Stadium) or flying it from vehicles in the school’s parking lot have been asked of me. I’ve heard a call or two suggesting the school should do away with the Red Rebels as the mascot.
It reminded me of Ole Miss and former chancellor Robert Khayat, who was spurred to action after the football coach told him he couldn’t recruit against the Rebel flag.
Khayat, who played for the Rebels, hired the national public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to conduct a thorough image review of the university’s symbols and customs. The verdict: If Ole Miss was to ever move into the future, the Rebel flag had to go. Khayat acted, despite death threats and a storm of controversy that began in 1996.
Since then Ole Miss has doubled enrollment, landed a chapter of the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa, hosted the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, and, oh yeah, played a better brand of football.
The Red Rebels is a name earned and honorable for Maryville High School. The symbols used to support that however need addressing. Banning this or prohibiting that isn’t the answer. It isn’t practical, it violates freedom of expression in spirit even if a legal loop hole is available pertaining to students, and let’s face it, teenagers are creative creatures who will find a way to rebel and do what they are told not to. The Red Rebels simply need a new symbology.
Maybe it’s bringing back the red elephant that existed before coach Bailey’s comment. It doesn’t exactly fit the name, but that didn’t stop Alabama.
Maybe it’s capitalizing on Disney and the new generation of Star Wars films to adopt the Rebel Alliance’s — appropriately in this case — red rebellion symbol already available in flag, T-shirt, helmet, lunch box and presumably underwear knowing the scope of that franchise’s merchandizing reach.
There’s no maybe on the fact it’s time to stop whistlin’ Dixie about it.