Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Lose the Flag

By Paul Gerald

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  So we're fighting about the rebel flag again. It sure is strange to pick up the daily paper and see an 18-year-old white kid who looks like he's right out of Jackson Prep, with a tie and a flask and a Confederate battle flag, talking about tradition and what is and isn't racist.

Why are we still discussing this? The damned thing is a pillar of defiant racism. Think Ku Klux Klan. And to say, "I wave it, but I'm not racist" is totally missing the point. The point is that the vast majority of black people say they're offended by the rebel flag, so to continue to wave it says to black people, "I don't care if I offend you." That sounds like racism to me.

What, I wonder, would the average Ole Miss student or season-ticket buyer do if all the black kids on the team decided to wear black gloves and hold them up during the national anthem? That's what those white kids do with their rebel flags, after all. Or how about if the Japanese-American student association put up a few Rising Suns around Oxford, in the name of their "good old days"?

The good news in the fall of '97 is that the greatest concentration of people waving that stupid flag are students, and everybody older than 24 knows that most college students -- and especially the ones at football games -- are best diagnosed as psychotic with moderate hopes for the future. Tell 100 Ole Miss fraternity boys not to pee in the Grove, and 30 of them would put used whiskey in it the next Friday night.

But there are plenty of adults waving the stars and bars, too -- and wearing it, on their heads and chests and asses. For most of those folks, I can only wonder what they're thinking. Traditions are nice, but not all of them make it, and the ones that offend large numbers of people should be the first to go. Why not just wave some other flag or shake a pom-pon and get on with it? Your school has requested it, after all.

When I tell friends in other parts of the country that folks in Mississippi wave the rebel flag and play "Dixie" at football games, they think I'm kidding. But Ole Miss, love it or loathe it, is just a little different. At least three of its rivals will, no matter who they're playing, yell for the Rebels to go to hell right after the pregame prayer. And when you see mister 17-year-old flask-bearer in the paper, you begin to see why.

But at the same time it's a genuinely pleasant and friendly place to hang out for an afternoon -- at least for white folks. Southern college football is one of America's great family spectacles. People come from all over in decorated cars, dress up nice, picnic all day, and greet each other with eternal "How're y'aaall"s and "It is so good to see youuu"s. Then they go watch amazing athletes play a spirited, complex, and fascinating game. I've been going to Oxford with my dad for most of my life. The experience could only be improved by a few more Rebel wins.

But the other side of big-time college football begins with this reality: crowds that are overwhelmingly white watching teams that are majority black, all of it generating money that goes to schools and sponsors and TV networks that are run almost entirely by white people. And even though all of those kids have the grades, the school would have chased after damn few of them if they couldn't run, block, throw, or catch.

What, after all, was coach Tommy Tuberville talking about when he dissed flag-waving? Recruiting. He was saying, in essence, "We need more great black athletes to win more games, and we have a hard time getting them here with you folks honoring the plantation days."

All in all, people waving rebel flags seems like a small problem in such a pained and cynical world. But it's like if you ask the guy upstairs to turn down the stereo at 2 a.m. and he tells you to bug off. It's annoying and silly and inconsiderate and not right. It needs to go away. Consider it a small token, part of a larger effort.

Here's hoping that Ole Miss fans will rise to the occasion and lose the flag -- even if it is just to help them whoop Mississippi State. (Paul Gerald, the Flyer's travel writer, is a former Memphian now living in Portland, Oregon. He came back last weekend to see his beloved Rebs beat Vanderbilt.)

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