Friday, March 28, 2008

Confederate Flag Is a Symbol of Pride for Some, Terror for Others

CUMBERLAND, Md. -- This city nestled in the gray hills of Western Maryland was once a key railroad hub for the Union Army, beset by Confederate raiders. Today, the rebel flag is again stirring trouble.

A high school principal's recent decision to ban wearing or displaying the Confederate flag, adopted by some white residents as a symbol of their history, has inflamed an already tense debate over racial sensitivity and freedom of speech.

Deana Bryant allowed her 16-year-old son to wear a shirt emblazoned with the flag to school one day last week in open defiance of the ban. Speaking from behind the grocery counter where she works, Bryant said the flag is not about racism.

"It's his heritage," she said, her blue eyes flashing.

The same day, Lakeal Ellis, a nurse, kept her three daughters home from Fort Hill High School. Shaken by the escalating tension, they packed their clothes. The African American family came here a little more than a year ago from the District hoping to find better schools and a quieter life.

The girls were getting good grades at the high school. But after enduring racial slurs and harassment, sometimes at the hands of youths with Confederate flags, the Ellis family decided to give up and return to the District.

At Fort Hill, the racial taunts had been going on throughout the school year, but the problems boiled over after a boy made racist remarks to one of Ellis's daughters in the cafeteria line this month, she said. Her daughter and the boy were suspended after an argument. In response, some students started displaying the flag on their clothes and trucks in solidarity with the boy.

The principal banned the display of the flag, but tensions continued to rise. Police stepped up their presence.

"The flag turned into a weapon," said Allegany County Superintendent Bill AuMiller, who met last week with parents and students who supported wearing the flag.

"They have a First Amendment right to wear it," AuMiller said, but using it to harass and intimidate students "crossed the line." He has asked students who display the flag "to voluntarily refrain until things cool down."

At a time when Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democratic candidate for president, has challenged the nation to transcend racial divides, the dispute at Fort Hill High School, named for a small fortification occupied by the Union Army, harks back to the past.

Flag fans often speak of their banner as a reminder of local history, a symbol of rebellion against authority and political correctness, and pride in their rural lifestyle. But one man's symbol of pride is another man's symbol of terror, said Charles Woods, a African American leader in Cumberland.

"You talk about that flag, the ugly side of people will rear its head up," he said. "That flag must be removed from school property."

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