The conservative South has a way of remembering its history by downplaying slavery, or just ignoring it altogether. When I was child growing up in Baton Rouge, my predominantly African American elementary school would be taken to local “heritage” plantations for our picnics. I distinctly remember thinking the house was so majestic and grand, the grass so green and lush, and admiring the big magnolia trees. There weren’t any traces of the slaves’ quarters anywhere, and we learned nothing about slavery. It wasn’t until years later I realized how twisted this was, particularly for African American students. Like flying the confederate flag over state capitols, these field trips were official attempts to celebrate Southern history without acknowledging the central role of slavery.
The mass shooting of nine African American parishioners at Emanuel AME in South Carolina on June 17 has led to an official call to take down the confederate flag at South Carolina’s Statehouse. Similar calls are being made for confederate flags throughout the country, including Mississippi’s state flag, the only one that still bears the mark of the confederacy.
In light of the racially-motivated killings in Charleston, Americans across the nation are rallying to take down the confederate flag for what it actually represents: a legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
The removal of the confederate flag, however, has played a significant role in SEC sports, often well ahead of the curve of their respective state governments. As an undergraduate at LSU in the late ’90s, I remember purple-and-gold confederate flags flying during home football games, and regular confederate flags en masse at “Ole Miss” games. Though they are still visible in parking lots and tailgates, both Mississippi (in 1997) and LSU (in 2006) banned the flag from inside their stadiums.
Despite the deep links between Southern football and regional pride, SEC schools have been quicker to take down the flag at their games than their respective state politicians at their state capitols. Steve Spurrier, current football head coach at South Carolina, had been vocal about his opposition of the flag for most of his decade-long career at USC, including recently on Twitter. Frank Martin, head coach of basketball at USC and John Calipari, head coach at Kentucky, have also been publicly vocal of their support of the flag’s removal from the state capitol.
Tuberville had told Khayat, “We can’t recruit against the confederate flag.”
What is significant about these removals of the confederate flag from college stadiums is that they were largely enacted for the promotion of the schools’ sports programs, in particular for recruiting African American players. Robert Khayat, the chancellor at University of Mississippi in 1997, issued a ban on the rebel flag at games with the advice and support of football coach Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville had told Khayat, “We can’t recruit against the confederate flag.” Khayat was met with death threats and public outcry, yet went ahead with his mission.
To get technical, neither team “banned” the flag in their stadiums. To circumvent the headache of First Amendment lawsuits, particularly hate speech protected as a type of free speech, both LSU and Mississippi found other ways to discourage the flag in stadiums. LSU announced to retailers and distributors of the purple-and-gold confederate flag that there would be legal consequences of using their school colors without permission, and sent cease and desist letters to producers. The University of Mississippi banned the admittance of any pointed objects in the stadium, including flag poles (as well as umbrellas and corn dogs), and limited the size of the flag that could be flown. Despite the fact that these were not official bans, the fact that both of these schools went through so much trouble to get rid of the flag and that their new policies stuck, attests to the ability and power of school administrations to change the tide of public opinion.
For college sports, there are significant repercussions tied to the confederate flag. NCAA rules prohibit any states that fly the confederate flag over state buildings from hosting post-season games. Both Mississippi and USC, with their large and competitive sports programs, have been more than willing to give up that opportunity to preserve this symbolic legacy of “the South.” It makes sense then that sports coaches have been so vocal about its removal.
The presence of the confederate flag on Southern college campuses epitomizes the racial contradictions of white Southern culture: a claim to a distinct, regional history sanitized of its legacy of slavery, and a desire to capitalize on the assets of its African American population. Or perhaps this is a continuity, not a contradiction, considering the on-going financial exploitation of student-athletes while the SEC rakes in the dough (over $450 million in revenue last year alone).
The ubiquity of the confederate flag throughout the South is actually a fairly recent reclamation, and not at all a continuous history since the Civil War. What we now consider the confederate flag was never the official flag of the confederacy. The flag came into popular circulation only in the latter half of the twentieth century, as desegregation made its way through the South and the Civil Rights Movement started to gain momentum. South Carolina put up the confederate flag at its Statehouse in 1962.
Despite Brown v. Board of Education passing in 1954, it took years for Southern public universities to actually racially desegregate, often impeded by white rioters and protesters. The University of South Carolina did not desegregate until 1963. James Meredith had to be accompanied by 500 U.S. Marshals when he went to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Massive and deadly riots broke out between white protesters and the U.S. Marshals. Similar events happened throughout the South, including governor George Wallace’s notorious act of throwing himself in the doorway to protest the enrollment of University of Alabama’s first African American students in 1963. The confederate flag was flown and upheld at all of these historical moments, to oppose progress and equality.
Racial integration was arguably the best thing to happen to Southern collegiate sports, without a doubt contributing to the immense athletic—and financial—success of the SEC today.
The presence of African American student-athletes at these schools comes even later, despite the fact that both states have significant African American populations (37% in Mississippi, 27% in South Carolina). The Gamecocks recruited Carlton Haywood, their first African American football player, in 1969. Ben Williams, University of Mississippi’s first African American football player, was admitted in 1972. Racial integration was arguably the best thing to happen to Southern collegiate sports, without a doubt contributing to the immense athletic—and financial—success of the SEC today.
In the South, college football is not just a pastime. It is a Southern culture, one strong enough to challenge confederate symbolism when it wants to; and it is often the site of political conflict and change. SEC football coaches are by far the highest paid public servants in their respective states, and often hold more public sway than politicians. Whatever his intents, political or athletic, Spurrier’s public opposition to the flag is but one small step in an ongoing process to reclaim the history of the South for everyone who lives there and calls it home, and not just for a handful of Whites who pick and choose their own version of history. The days are numbered for the flying of the flag at state capitols, and how the flag is flown (or not) at game days on college campuses across the South will serve as a litmus test to how the public responds culturally to these official changes.
As critics have pointed out, the discussion of the confederate flag has distracted our attention from the massacre at Emanuel AME and the racism and hate that led the shooter to his crimes. This is all true. Yet, though the confederate flag is nothing but a symbol, it means everything as a symbol. It’s time for Southerners–and not just badass Bree Newsome–to rise to the challenge and come up with more creative, accurate, racially inclusive, and ethically responsible ways of depicting Southern history, without falling back on the modern myth of the confederacy.
SERENITY JOO | @JooSerenity
Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanatic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.