Some of you may have read national media reports about the suspension of Beaufort high school students for wearing clothing bearing Confederate flag emblems. School administrators claim that the suspensions were necessary to prevent a disruption of the school environment. As justification, they cited an incident wherein a student wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag logo was handing out recruiting leaflets for the Aryan Nation. Hall monitors had to intervene when other students angrily confronted this student. These media reports are true as far as they go, but they are only part of the story. As a journalist embedded in Beaufort, let me give you the unedited version.
What is occurring in Beaufort is best described as a “Cultural Clash.” In their reviews of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” some film critics used this term to describe the predicament that ensues when a female raised in a traditional Greek family becomes romantically involved with a non-Greek WASP male. The sharp diversity of their cultural backgrounds does indeed create quite a clash for the two lovers, but scriptwriters made the clash comedic. And in this fictional version of life, the WASP forsakes his traditions in favor of Greek religious and cultural mores; marries the girl, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But cultural clashes involving groups and institutions, like the one unfolding in Beaufort, are more complex than those between families and individuals. Although Beaufort is often described as a quaint little coastal town, the cultural clash here can be viewed as a microcosm of the larger society. This clash involves Beaufort high school students and their parents, and the root of the conflict is African-American heritage versus Southern heritage. Specifically, the issue is the school’s policies regarding the rights of students to honor their particular heritage.
In the past half-century, African-Americans have zealously promoted their heritage with various commemorations and special events. The tremendous success of their efforts is largely attributable to the enormous support received from the mainstream media. In fact, the immense outpouring of media encouragement for African-American endeavors in the past few decades is probably unprecedented in the history of mass communications. At Beaufort high schools African-American heritage is primarily sustained by the Umoja Ujima Service Club whose members wear clothing emblazoned with a depiction of the continent of Africa. Umoja Ujima is a term that combines two principles of Kwanzaa and means “unity through collective work and responsibility.”
During the same half-century, Southerners have passively watched as their cultural traditions have been gradually eliminated as a result of attacks from political activists and the mainstream media. Southern heritage has been a victim of what we might call a cultural pogrom. The media campaign has been so effective that some Southerners only reluctantly admit to being born south of the Mason Dixon Line. But as usually happens in these cases, a backlash has developed and now Southerners are fighting to reclaim their birthright. At Beaufort high schools, students honor Southern heritage by wearing clothing that bears the logo of the Confederate flag or other Confederate symbols.
Until recently, there have been no reports of serious conflicts between African-American culture and Southern heritage. The cultural clash first came to the public’s attention as a result of an occurrence during an elementary school graduation ceremony. Parents, grandparents and relatives of the graduating class were shocked and incensed by the performance of the Umoja Ujima step team. Complaints to school officials accused the teen-aged girls that comprise the team of engaging in sexually suggestive body gyrations inappropriate for school children not to mention adults. Parents were also outraged at the step team for chanting indecent lyrics from the rap song; “Throw Yo’ Hood Up.” The first few lines of the song easily illustrate that the outrage was justified.
“Put yo hood up! Represent your s___ m____ f____ Represent your click m____ f____ Well sit yo’ drink up and smell yo’ m____ f____ Crown.”
The fury of the complaints resulted in the temporary suspension of the Umoja Ujima step team and a temporary ban on future performances. Team captain Folami Lamoke claimed that “Throw Yo’ Hood Up” was used “because it had a beat that synchronized with a step to achieve a specific artistic effect.” She defended the “suggestive moves” of the step team dancers as follows: “People of Asian descent move in a certain way; people of European descent move in a certain way; people of African descent MOVE. No apology here, none necessary. As people of different cultures begin to interact more and more, more and more people are starting to MOVE when they dance.”
In an editorial, The Beaufort Gazette stated: “No one doubts that the lyrics and dance steps were inappropriate for a school setting and maybe many other settings. The team has been suspended, but should they have to disband?” The Gazette recommended leniency and a probationary period for the step team and commented: “Let’s make this a learning experience. It may be more beneficial in the long run.”
The above incident occurred months before the student was suspended for distributing white supremacy leaflets. His actions, although inappropriate, caused no interruption of school activities. The student agreed to change into a shirt without the Confederate logo and he has since left the school.
The Beaufort Gazette reported that, as a result of this incident, the school principal, Bill Evans, “told hall monitors to crack down on the Confederate emblem and asked students to keep the shirts away from school, even though they had been wearing them in the halls without incident for years.” After imposing the ban, the principal also said; “We’re just not going to accept people walking around advocating that there is some superior race. I can’t tell those people (who are offended) to forget about something that is a terrible part of their heritage. It would be like telling somebody who’s Jewish to ignore Nazi Germany.”
Mr. Evans’ claim that the Confederate emblem tends to “disrupt or interfere with the school environment” is contradicted by students as well as past history at the school. Students and their parents argue that the Confederate flag shouldn’t be banned simply because one student misused it. But The Beaufort Gazette accepted the principal’s logic. In an editorial the Gazette stated: “Reasonable students and parents understand the consequences of a white supremacy movement in a school.”
I’m surprised that a newspaper editor would conclude that the actions of one student constituted a “movement.” Moreover, this judgment conflicts with the Gazette’s earlier opinion that the inappropriate behavior by some Umoja Ujima dancers was an isolated and unfortunate incident that didn’t typify the values of the entire organization. Also, in this later case, although it criticized the manner in which the school’s administration handled the matter, the Gazette endorsed the ban of all Confederate emblems; “The administration and the board have a right to ban those shirts from school, but they also have an obligation to educate.”
Dusty Rhodes, a 16 year-old student sent a letter to the Gazette regarding the ban. “I was born and raised in the South. My ancestors fought for the South. We who live in the South should be able to wear something to show our heritage. African-Americans can wear jewelry, robes, dresses and any African artifacts to school. African-Americans celebrate their heritage in Black History Month, Martin Luther King Day and the Gullah Festival. We cannot even wear a shirt or anything that has the Confederate flag on it to school. If we can’t wear things to school to honor our heritage, why should the African-Americans be able to wear theirs?”
The Beaufort Gazette asked its readers the following question: “Do you think Beaufort High School was justified in suspending four students who refused to stop wearing clothing bearing Confederate symbols?” Seventy-one percent said “No.” This percentage is fairly representative of polls in surrounding states indicating that roughly 75% of respondents view the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage and not hate. A recent nationwide poll by Zogby shows that 66% of the country’s population feel the same way. However, many newspaper and TV reports convey the impression that only an insignificant number of Confederate reactionaries view the banner as heritage. In fact, media coverage frequently uses the term “Rebel Flag.”
Pro-flag students and their parents have held two formal protests against what they feel is an unfair and arbitrary prohibition against Southern heritage. Also, they paraded through the town of Beaufort waving Confederate flags and carrying placards. The marchers were enthusiastically received by the majority of spectators.
To add to the controversy, a bomb threat was spray-painted on an outside wall of the high school. Below the bomb threat a crude depiction of a Confederate flag was also spray-painted. Without waiting for an investigation to determine the perpetrators, Mr. Evans claimed that the spray painting proved that Confederate emblems advocate hate rather than heritage. The threat turned out to be a hoax and authorities are still trying to identify the offenders.
This rush to judgment by Principal Bill Evans conflicts with his reaction to an earlier incident involving allegations of a teacher using “excessive force” to discipline a student; an event unrelated to Confederate emblems. In that case Evans advised cautious restraint, saying: “It would be premature for us to involve law enforcement until we got to the bottom of this and got a better picture of what took place.” Apparently, consistency is not one of Mr. Evan’s traits.
So this is how the issue stands today. Almost 40 students have been suspended for wearing T-shirts bearing Confederate flag images. Some of their parents have threatened to solicit legal help from the ACLU and the Southern Legal Resource Center. Others are considering home schooling. School officials are adamant that the ban against Confederate emblems will be permanent. Some local residents have suggested that the school require uniforms for all students as a way of resolving the conflict.