Nearly all around Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, from the walls along its upper sweeps down to the lower seats, you could see the Confederate Hag dancing at the ends of poles and sticks in the wet wind. On the field Mississippi was having at Alabama, and in the stands the Ole Miss fans waved the flag whenever the Rebels gave them reason to. In the northeast corner of the stadium, a student section, the Rebel flag was worn on baseball caps, above the pockets of clean white shirts, on neckties neatly knotted at the throat. It was everywhere.
No one was chestier in flaunting the banner than Clay Brooks, a 19-year-old banking and finance major from Winona, Miss., who had painted the Rebel flag in color from below his navel to the base of his neck. "I wanted to do something different," said Brooks. "I'm just having fun. If they don't like it, they can kiss my flag."
This was last Saturday afternoon, in Oxford, Miss., and it wasn't Mississippi burning again, of course—not as in the 1960s, when civil rights workers were murdered there and churches went up in flames, and Governor Ross Barnett stood defiantly in the doors of Ole Miss in a futile attempt to block James Meredith from becoming the first black student to enroll. What happened on Saturday suggested, at worst, a straggling band of Old South adolescents still playing with matches, fascinated by fire, and, at best, a small army of adults and students reverting to their terrible twos. (Ask them not to gargle their milk, and they spill it on the floor.) Crowds at Ole Miss home football games have been hoisting the Rebel flag for years—since the Dixiecrats, rebelling against a civil rights plank, walked out of the 1948 Democratic Convention—but last week's demonstration of flag-waving was unusually widespread, a reaction to a recent movement to keep the Confederacy's symbol out of the stadium.
Complaining that the flag was tarnishing the school's image and sabotaging his efforts at recruiting blue-chip black players—rival schools, he says, were using the flag to warn black athletes away from Oxford—Mississippi football coach Tommy Tuberville has been urging fans to carry a less divisive banner, one bearing the letter M studded with stars. Then, on Oct. 21, the student government passed a resolution urging students to leave the Rebel flags at home because of the racial unrest the flags were causing. Finally, for "safety" reasons, the university administration banned the carrying of sticks—i.e., flagstaffs of any size into the stadium, effective Nov. 1. Thai made the game against Alabama the last at which flags on sticks would be allowed in Vaught-Hemingway, and many fans arrived carrying the Rebel banner to protest the ban.
Ole Miss is a house divided. The flag issue generated a heated debate at last month's annual meeting of the alumni association. Under the racially charged heading "Stop the Lynching of Ole Miss and Southern Heritage," a Jackson, Miss., citizens' group recently sent out a mailing, with a Confederate flag on the envelope, asking for money to support its cause. Among those unfurling the Rebel flag on Saturday, there was much talk about it as an inspirational symbol of Southern heritage and chivalry, of Old South pride and tradition. It was like listening to members of the Flat Earth Society.
The fact is, in its most memorable incarnation at Ole Miss, the Rebel flag served as the rallying symbol for white students protesting integration after Meredith was enrolled in 1962, a lamentable desecration of the banner that Robert E. Lee honored in battle. Since then the flag has fallen even further: It's seen most commonly today on the back windows of pickup trucks and on bikers' denim jackets. Its inflammatory message is so clear that it cannot mean one thing outside the gates and another thing within. Today about 12% of the 10,745 students at Ole Miss are black, including half the football team, and to those students the meaning of the flag is clear. "It's not a symbol of tradition but of oppression and exclusion." says Charles Ross, an assistant professor in Mississippi's Afro-American studies program.
Symbols, like pointed sticks, can hurt. Strike the colors.