South fights on to keep its old flag flying

WITH TWO of its sons in the White House for the first time since 1829 and preparations under way for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, has the American South finally shed its segregationist and Civil War past? There is a dispute raging across the region that suggests not.

The object of conflict is a single symbol, revered and reviled, that speaks both to the 1861 uprising against the Union and to the civil rights strife that erupted in the South three decades ago. It is the battle flag of the Confederate States, a St Andrews Cross bearing 13 stars on a field of red.

From Virginia to Louisiana a campaign is being waged to have the flag removed from public places as at least outdated and inappropriate, if not representative pure and simple of slavery and racism. Its defenders, though, are fighting to preserve what they say is a legitimate, honourable badge of the Old South's history.

The battle is fiercest in two states - Alabama and Georgia - where the flag was reintroduced as a gesture of defiance against civil rights and the order to desegregate. In 1956, the Georgian legislature added the confederate emblem to the state flag. Seven years later, Governor George Wallace of Alabama ordered the battle flag raised above the State Capitol in Montgomery.

With the approach of the Olympic Games clearly in mind and the risk of a black boycott and embarrassment on a global scale, Governor Zell Miller of Georgia last month implored legislators in Atlanta to return the state flag to its pre-1956 format. 'What we fly today is the fighting flag of those who wanted to preserve a segregated South in the face of the civil rights movement,' he declared.

Across the border, the Governor of Alabama, Guy Hunt, has enlisted with the other side. He rejected calls, led by black legislators and supported by the local Chamber of Commerce, to lower the battle flag from the State Capitol. In a humiliating setback, however, he was forced to yield to a court ruling two weeks ago that said flying the flag violated a state law dating from the last century.

The controversy is not over in either state. Gov Miller's allies concede that for now the legislature is against changing the Georgia flag; the issue may remain unresolved when the first athletes arrive in 1996. Governor Hunt is said to be considering a referendum on the issue, which he might win. The battle flag, meanwhile, flies above South Carolina's Capitol and is incorporated in the state flag of Mississippi.

Leading the flag revolt in Alabama is Alvin Holmes, a state legislator and leading black spokesman. 'The Confederate flag represents slavery and oppression,' he says, pointing out that it has become the banner of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as of neo-Nazi organisations beyond the United States, particularly in Europe. 'Yes, it's part of American history, but Adolf Hitler is part of Germany's history. Does the German government fly the Nazi flag?'

The argument is rejected, with equal passion, by Colonel John Napier, a Montgomery historian. 'That's something that Southerners resent bitterly, because it's totally unfair. They say the flag is unpatriotic, but I'm sorry, that doesn't cut. People from the South have fought and died to defend the US - and to fight Nazis - more than anyone else.'

Col Napier says he has 'no problem' with blacks celebrating their culture. 'But some blacks want at the same time to expunge our Confederate history, and it won't stop at the flag.' He points to a recent call in New Orleans for schools named after Confederate heroes to be given new names.

The controversy may have little bearing on the day-to-day lives of most residents. But it serves to remind everyone of William Faulkner's words - his native South is a place where 'the past is not dead, it isn't even past'.

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