Cross to bear: Southern pride-- or prejudice?
When Lewis Dickerson pulls into the driveway of the business he owns on Harris Street, he's proud to see a symbol of his family's heritage flying overhead.
Across the street, when Jasper Bell steps out onto his front porch, he sees a different symbol, one that stands for slavery and racism, and one that's been a constant irritant to him as long as he's lived in his Concord Avenue house.
Even 137 years after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia continues to stir strong emotions. And neither side seems likely to call a truce over this particular symbol any time soon.
An unrelenting fascination with the Civil War has seared it into our national psyche. Ten years after its release, Ken Burns' award-winning 11-hour documentary, and the top-seller in the PBS video archive, The Civil War, was re-broadcast and doubled PBS ratings.
Flag-flying Lewis Dickerson says his interest stems from family history. His "triple-great" twin uncles fought in the War Between the States as part of the 35th Virginia Calvary under General J.E.B. Stuart. Dickerson still has the obituary clipping about the 1931 death of one of them, William A. Dickerson, who was captured when his horse was shot out from under him on June 1, 1862, after fighting in the Chickahominy Swamps.
A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Dickerson states emphatically that he's not a racist. "I don't hate anything or any creature," he says.
"Actually, everyone here is very proud of it," says one of Dickerson's Quality Welding employees, who asked that her name not be used. "We have nothing against black people. It's our heritage."
And with the controversial flag flying below the Stars and Stripes overhead, the unnamed employee says, "I think a person should have the right to stand behind what they believe in."
Dickerson says he's gotten three or four complaints in the years he's flown the flag, "all from white people." He also got a lot of positive telephone calls when he first put it up, mainly from "elderly women."
He acknowledges that some people see the battle flag as a racist symbol, but he doesn't agree with that position.
"Most black people who know me know it isn't," he says. "I have lots of black customers. If someone came from New York, they might be offended until they got to know me."
Dickerson has not met his neighbors in the African-American community across the street who are offended by his Confederate flag.
Quality Welding flies its colors.
Juanita Bowles has lived on Concord Avenue for 52 years, ever since hers was the first black family to move into that block. To her, the Confederate flag is a sign of discrimination. "I've looked at it over the years, and I don't like it," Bowles says.
What about it being also a symbol of Dickerson's heritage? She replies drily, "We noticed."
Bowles says that lots of her neighbors over the years have said they should do something about it, but no one has. "I just learned to live with it," she says.
Perceptions about how long the flag has flown vary widely. Back at Quality Welding, Dickerson says he can't recall exactly how long he's flown the flag, but he estimates around 10 years.
Says Bell, "That dumb flag's been there 34 years," the length of time he's lived in his house.
"It's annoying because I see it every time I come out my door," says Bell. "It's an eyesore when I sit on my porch."
From Bell's vantage point, the Confederate flag "goes way back to slavery, to what the South fought about."
He knows the flag is a material object that can't hurt him, but he sees a lack of sensitivity in its being flown in his face. "It looks to me like he wouldn't do it," says Bell.
The Southern Cross
The debate over the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag goes far beyond one Charlottesville neighborhood. In 2000, the NAACP boycotted South Carolina for flying the standard over its state capital.
In 1999, the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Virginia, represented by the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, sued to get its own specialty license plates picturing the battle flag. The group won on appeal this year, and, as of August 31, 886 of the plates were in place on cars in Virginia.
Robert Tatum, local camp commander of SCV camp 1493 in the 19th Virginia Infantry, says the battle flag has been the logo of the Sons of Confederate Veterans since 1896.
There are a few misconceptions Tatum wants to clear up about the flag.
"It is not the 'Stars and Bars' the first national Confederate flag," he explains. Two other flags followed the Stars and Bars as flags used in the Confederate campaign.
Though it's the flag most associated today with the Confederacy, the "Southern Cross" was never the official Confederate flag. It was designed as the battle flag for the Army of Northern Virginia, the one that Lee surrendered in 1865. Other Southern armies had their own flags.
The similarity of the Stars and Bars to the Stars and Stripes led to confusion on the battlefield, including unfortunate incidents of Confederates firing upon their brothers in arms.
There was no such confusion with the Southern Cross, which is based upon St. Andrew's cross. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and for many Southerners of Scottish or Scotch-Irish descent, the flag no doubt conjured an earlier heritage.
The Southern Cross gained notoriety during the 1950s and '60s when, as the walls of segregation were tumbling down around them, Southern state legislatures appropriated it as a symbol of their defiance.
The battle flag was further smeared when the Ku Klux Klan claimed it. Today the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that more than 500 hate groups use the battle flag as a symbol.
The heritage POV
The Sons of Confederate Veterans continue to maintain that the battle flag is a symbol not of racism, but of their heritage. "It had nothing to do with slavery," says local commander Tatum categorically.
Historian Shelby Foote, who gained fame through his wry, anecdotal commentary in Ken Burns' PBS documentary, says that those who see the banner as synonymous with slavery have their history wrong.
In Tony Horwitz's popular 1998 book, Confederates in the Attic, Foote describes the flag as a combat standard, not a political symbol. "It stood for law, honor, love of country," he says, and was revered by the veterans who fought under it.
Speculating about why the Confederate flag remains such a controversial symbol, UVA history professor Gary Gallagher says, "I think the reason is it evokes, for many people, a slave-holding society."
The issue becomes sensitive with whites, too. "People get upset when you equate their ancestors with Nazis," explains Gallagher. "A lot of these descendants didn't own slaves, and I don't think they're dissembling when they say they're honoring their ancestors."
The problem, continues Gallagher, is that many move on to disassociate the flag from slavery. "You can't do that," he says. "You can't separate it from the Confederate constitution, which explicitly mandated slavery."
Does that make the battle flag a racist symbol? "Well, come on," says Tatum, "that's an interpretation that has no validity."
As for those who are offended by the Southern Cross, Tatum answers with a resounding "So what?"
"People don't have a constitutional right to not be offended," he says.
As far as Tatum knows, his ancestors– whom he describes as "hardscrabble farmers"– didn't own slaves. He has a theory about why the flag remains so controversial: some groups need a raison d'être. "I think it gives people something to complain about and to raise money for," he maintains.
Scot French, associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African studies, doesn't think the battle flag can be separated from its revival during the era of massive resistance to desegregation. He calls the flag "very much a symbol of rebellion even against change.
"It can be a way of expressing a connection to a Southern identity that's eroded," he continues. Charlottesville and Albemarle have had so many people move in that some natives want to claim the past and "resist the homogenizing effect."
French says what the flag wavers are rebelling against isn't necessarily blacks. For example, it could also be liberals. Or perhaps it could be... Yankees?
"That's the problem," French says. "It's not fully articulated, and you don't know what's going on."
Of the 3,500 members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Virginia, about 80 are in the Charlottesville area. They've found it can be a burden to stand up for their heritage.
"It's a wearisome thing," concedes Tatum. "We're tired of dealing with it. But if the gentleman wants to fly his flag, that's his First Amendment right. We're not going to stop flying it."
And he sees one benefit for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the ongoing controversy over the battle flag. "The more people complain, the more members we get," he says. "People are fed up."
If he needed to have some welding done, Corey Walker would not patronize Quality Welding. He is a teacher at UVA's Carter G. Woodson Institute.
"For me, I can't see the flag without seeing that the central component of the South as a regime was the institution of slavery," he says.
To Walker, the heritage argument falls a bit flat because so much of that heritage "entails the enslavement of African Americans."
Even Shelby Foote, while versed in the history of the battle flag, recognizes that it's become "a banner of shame and disgrace and hate," he says in Confederates in the Attic. He attributes that fate to misuse of the flag during the civil rights struggle.
Joe Szakos can see the Quality Welding flag from his second floor offices at the Virginia Organizing Project. He says visitors are often "appalled" to see the Southern Cross when they look out his window.
"Nobody can fly that flag without knowing the negative message it sends to the community," he states. "It's a symbol of racial hatred."
The Albemarle-Charlottesville branch of the NAACP shares the same building as Szakos. Its president, Edna-Jakki Miller, has never noticed Lewis Dickerson's battle flag. She doesn't seem too surprised that it's flying, though, in a state that allows Confederate flags on license plates.
Miller acknowledges that it's Dickerson's right to fly the flag, and she hazards a guess as to why. "Some people's lives might not be so big. They're still locked in those times and proud of it."
Miller doesn't care if someone flies the flag inside their house. "But in public, don't subject me to it," she says.
To Miller, the message the flag sends is that this is a business that doesn't care much about its marketing. If it did, "It would not do something so offensive to customers and to the neighborhood," she says.
French echoes that sentiment. "When you fly it, you want to be provocative. He's not flying it from home."
French admits he knows nothing about Dickerson or his motives for flying the battle flag. Yet, he says, "I'd have to assume he doesn't care if it offends. He has to know that for many people, the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery and segregation. He clearly is making a statement."
Because of the flag, neither Miller nor French is likely to patronize Quality Welding, although French notes that the market for those who need welding may be limited and the shop is not likely to draw many walk-in customers.
Scot French poses this question about the flag on Harris Street: "Is it a public policy issue? I don't think so." He says he'd react more forcefully if the flag were flying over a public institution than as a statement made by a private citizen.
For instance, people all over the country weighed in on the debate over the battle flag flying atop the South Carolina capital. And last year, Mississippians voted to keep the battle flag on their state flag.
However, at least one critic questions whether there is a public policy issue involved with the Quality Welding flag. A UVA faculty member, who prefers to not have his name used, asks whether the business does contracting for government agencies in the area, adding, "I certainly don't want my tax dollars supporting this symbol of racism."
In fact, the City of Charlottesville spent $20,836 at Quality Welding last year. The city has no policy on doing business with companies that fly potentially offensive symbols, according to city spokesman Maurice Jones.
The city does routinely require a nondiscrimination clause in its requests for bids. "Despite the fact the Confederate flag is offensive to many, it does not on its own mean the company practices discrimination," says Jones. "Therefore we cannot legally disqualify it from city jobs.
Quality Welding has no black employees.
When will the war be over?
Some would argue that merely by writing about Lewis Dickerson's Confederate battle flag, The Hook is fanning the flames of a sensitive topic.
One of the most sage observations in Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic comes from a waitress in Columbia, South Carolina, at the height of the flag-over-the-capitol furor. "As soon as you make an issue of something, everyone feels they got to pick sides," she notes, "same as they done back in eighteen-whatever."
And yet, it's an issue that doesn't seem to go away. The presence of the neo-Confederate memorabilia stand at this year's Albemarle County Fair drew comments from many less-than-amused fairgoers, including one who says, "I thought I was at a [Klan] rally." [See sidebar]
There have been some attempts to rehabilitate the flag. During the 1960s, a civil rights group at UVA, the Southern Student Organizing Committee, used a Confederate flag held by clasped white and black hands on posters.
On the state level, during his last year in office, former Governor Jim Gilmore backed away from the Confederate History Month proclamation issued by his predecessor, George Allen. In its place, Gilmore issued a proclamation of his own commemorating both sides in the war and drawing the wrath of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This year, Governor Mark Warner declined to issue any proclamation at all, calling the practice a "lightning rod."
"Whether people mean it to be or not, it is divisive," says French at the Woodson Institute. "If you're trying to unite all Virginians, the Confederate flag doesn't do it."
Perhaps no one illustrates the complexity of the battle flag divide better than Ben "Cooter" Jones, who's running for the 7th District congressional seat.
Jones, who used to star in the popular '80s show, The Dukes of Hazzard, was recently dissed by fellow Democrat and former Governor Doug Wilder, who complained to party officials that Jones was using the Confederate flag as part of his campaign strategy.
Cooter Davenport, the character Jones portrayed in the series, drove a Dodge Charger called the General Lee, which sported a Confederate battle flag on its roof.
Jones has been riding in the General Lee in parades, sparking Wilder's complaints and drawing criticism from his opponent, incumbent Eric Cantor, of Jones' emphasis on his Southern heritage.
Jones vehemently denies he's sending a racist message, and he backs it up by citing his activism arrests during civil rights protests in the '60s. Civil rights leader and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young defends Jones' civil rights credentials.
Jones told the Washington Post that his pride in Confederate valor is not inconsistent with a belief in civil rights.
"Part of Southern heritage is ancestors who fought nobly on the wrong side of history," he says. "Many of us have a love affair with this region and all of its people."
Southern heritage can cut both ways, though. And for Jasper Bell, who can see the Southern Cross every day from his front porch, the other side is, "I really don't like that thing being there."
Can the battle flag ever fly in public without controversy? Shelby Foote thinks not, much as he wishes it could be seen as it once was, a symbol of honor and love of country.
He sounds frailer and wearier on the phone at his home in Memphis than one remembers from The Civil War, but he offers one observation in the ongoing battle over flying the flag: "The people in the middle 90 percent of them don't give a damn one way or another."