- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

When he was the governor of Arkansas only two decades ago, Bill Clinton routinely issued proclamations, with the usual rhetorical flourishes, commemorating the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.
So did the governors of other states once part of the Confederacy, and tributes to Southern valor and courage in the service of "the Lost Cause" were no more controversial than proclamations of Mother's Day, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
But such tributes to Confederate heritage held in reverence by millions of Southerners and other Americans are now political dynamite. Two of President-elect George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees are under attack this week, not only for their stance on policy issues, but for sympathetic remarks toward the Confederacy.
In recent years, opponents have made a political issue of the Confederate battle flag. The familiar St. Andrew's Cross in red, white and blue was for decades an artifact of amiable tourist kitsch, displayed on shelves beside pecan rolls, corncob pipes and plastic alligators in gift shops and restaurants along highways to Florida, the Mississippi coast and other Dixie resorts.
Long-haired motorcyclists displayed the Confederate colors to proclaim their rebellion against "square" society. In the 1970s, Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd toured the nation, taking the stage lavished with an enormous Confederate battle flag backdrop, while TV's "Dukes of Hazzard" showcased Bo and Luke Duke as they raced down country roads in their souped-up Dodge Charger, nicknamed "General Lee," with the flag emblazoned on its roof.
"Back as late as 1986, nobody complained about Confederate symbols at all," recalls P. Charles Lunsford, president of the Heritage Preservation Association, an Atlanta group that defends Confederate history.
So how and why has it become a hate crime to whistle "Dixie"?
"I think it represents a hole in our education," says Walter E. Williams, chairman of the economics department at Virginia's George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist who writes frequently on race and politics. He blames "political opportunism" for the crusade against Confederate remembrance.
"People are associating the War Between the States as solely motivated by slavery," says Mr. Williams, a black scholar who argues that the 1861-1865 conflict "was more of a states' rights issue than a slavery issue."
Thomas J. DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola University in Baltimore who has written extensively on Civil War history, agrees. Left-wing groups "insinuate that if someone even mentions the word 'Confederacy,'" he says, "they're somehow secretly in favor of slavery.
"It's absolutely crazy. It's an act of desperation on the part of the left."
The left is now using the Confederacy as a weapon against Mr. Bush's Cabinet nominees.
Opponents of former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, the nominee for attorney general whose Senate confirmation hearing begins today, criticize his 1998 interview in which he praised Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as "Southern patriots."
Gale A. Norton, Mr. Bush's nominee for interior secretary, has drawn fire for a 1996 speech in which she said proponents of states' rights under the 10th Amendment "lost too much" as a result of the defeat of the South in 1865. Chairman Julian Bond of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) says Mrs. Norton's remarks "exhibited a wanton insensitivity toward slavery and its descendants."
In the past decade, elements of Southern history represented by symbols such as the Confederate flag and by sentimental songs like "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" have gone from regional culture to national controversy.
In 1993, Carol Moseley-Braun, then a Democratic senator from Illinois, persuaded the U.S. Senate to deny renewal of a patent on the century-old emblem of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The Confederate flag became a presidential issue in the Republican primary in South Carolina last winter. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who called the flag "a symbol of racism and slavery," was defeated in that key contest by Mr. Bush, who declined to describe his view of the flag but insisted that South Carolinians had the right to decide whether they should honor the flag and if so, how. Under pressure from an NAACP boycott, South Carolina's Legislature took the flag from its standard above the Statehouse in July. But the NAACP vowed to continue the boycott, upset because the Legislature voted to move the flag to a place of honor at a Confederate monument on the Statehouse grounds.
Mr. Bush ordered two plaques commemorating the Confederacy removed from the Texas Supreme Court building in Austin. Mississippi's legislature voted last week to hold a referendum on the Confederate emblem in its state flag, and Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes is trying to avoid a replay of the 1992-1993 struggle over that state's flag, which also incorporates the familiar St. Andrew's Cross. Some critics have grumbled about a single star on the Arkansas state flag, which commemorates the state's membership in the Confederacy.
Hostility to Southern symbols even has led to criminal attacks. A year ago, an outdoor mural portraying Lee was the target of an arson attack in Richmond. In 1995, a 19-year-old Kentuckian, Michael Westerman, was shot to death by a black teen-ager who was offended by a Confederate flag on Mr. Westerman's truck.
The change in sentiment toward the flag began in the 1980s when a professor at the University of Mississippi helped organize student protests against the university's use of Confederate symbols "Dixie" as the school's fight song, the battle flag and a "Colonel Reb" mascot at sporting events.
The NAACP then took up the fight. At its national convention in 1991, the NAACP adopted a resolution denouncing the Confederate battle flag as an "ugly symbol of idiotic white supremacy" and "an odious blight upon the universe," and pledged the organization to "the removal of the Confederate flag from all public properties."
John White, a spokesman for the NAACP, says the Baltimore-based organization opposes Confederate displays only on public property, not by private citizens. But he acknowledges the NAACP's role in promoting opposition to symbols of the Old South.
"The Confederacy has always been an issue," Mr. White says, "just like the Ku Klux Klan and other proponents of racism and slavery." The Klan, in fact, not only incorporates the flag as its symbol, but the Christian cross, familiar to black as well as white church-goers.
Mr. Lunsford, of the Atlanta heritage organization, accuses the NAACP of attempting "to eradicate every vestige of the Old South" and promoting racial animosity. "The NAACP has created a campaign of hatred, bigotry and oppression against all things Southern," he says. "They are trying to convince their people to hate us, and it's having some effect… . It's getting pretty nasty."
The NAACP has other critics, including conservative activist David Horowitz, who says the group has become "a defamation and shakedown operation" in recent years.
"If you are a corporation, they will accuse you of being racist and stick their hands in your pockets as far as they can go," says Mr. Horowitz, a prominent '60s radical leftist who now heads the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
"If you are a political opponent, they will tar and feather you until you bleed or fall," Mr. Horowitz says. "The Confederacy is just one of the red herrings they use to keep themselves in business."
Sympathetic media coverage has fueled the attack on Southern symbols. A database search by The Washington Times found that three major newspapers the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times reported just five Confederate flag-related stories in 1992, but 283 such stories last year.
Similarly, three newsmagazines Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report printed 12 stories focusing on the Confederate flag in 1999 and 2000. A decade earlier, in 1989 and '90, those magazines published only two stories on the flag.
Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who led the fight to end racial preferences in that state, says he finds it "debilitating" for black Americans to dwell on injustices in the distant past.
"This preoccupation with the past and looking through the rearview mirror at America's history is preventing many black people from enjoying the present," he says. "Many are so concerned about slavery that they fail to appreciate the profound social changes that have occurred in our nation."
Mr. Connerly, who is black and who was born in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, adds: "Unfortunately, people like [the Rev.] Jesse Jackson and others don't want blacks to enjoy life in America. They want them to feel miserable."


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