Chapel Hill News

Northern Orange NAACP wants Confederate flag banned from county schools

Two men who refused to divulge their names walk past diners enjoying lunch at the James Pharmacy in Hillsborough on Aug. 8, 2015. They had just left a rally for the Confederate Flag on the grounds of the Town Hall.
Two men who refused to divulge their names walk past diners enjoying lunch at the James Pharmacy in Hillsborough on Aug. 8, 2015. They had just left a rally for the Confederate Flag on the grounds of the Town Hall.

The Northern Orange County NAACP has again asked the Orange County Schools Board of Education to ban the Confederate flag.

In a letter to the school board and Superintendent Todd Wirt, NAACP President Patricia Clayton asks to ban the flag on school grounds, citing other districts that prohibit it on school property, clothing and other materials.

Clayton also cites the Orange County Schools’ strategic plan, which she said partially states that the district believes “in learning from our history and each other.”

“To the NAACP, that includes the historical context of the Confederate flag to slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War and Jim Crow,” Clayton said in her letter. “For many, the flag is a racially inflammatory symbol, which is undeniably rooted in slavery and racism. Given OCS’ commitment to serve all students, the district should not allow the Confederate flag on its campuses.”

Eight people spoke to the school board about the Confederate flag Monday night.

The board had no immediate comment as is its policy, district spokesman Seth Stephens said. The superintendent, who was out of town Tuesday, has met with people about the issue before and will likely talk with the school board about how to respond to the latest requests, Stephens said.

Efforts to reach school board Chairman Steve Halkiotis were unsuccessful.

But in an email, the commander of the N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans criticized the NAACP and accused the group of “race baiting.”

“The Confederate flag is the perennial scapegoat for these so-called leaders who do not have solutions to the very real problems facing their communities,” R. Kevin Stone said in a release.

“The Confederate flag flew for four years over a people who desperately fought and died for their homes and families against a federal government that did not value or protect them,” he continued.

Before that, the American flag flew over a country that prospered from human slavery, Stone said, yet the NAACP and other critics don’t suggest banning the American flag.

The Northern Orange NAACP previously sought a ban on the Confederate flag on student clothing. The request in 2015 came a few days after a weekend rally in Hillsborough drew 600 people in support of the Confederate flag.

At the time, school officials cited the district’s dress code, which says “No student’s appearance or clothing will be acceptable if it is deemed disruptive, provocative, indecent, vulgar, or obscene, or if it endangers the health or safety of the student or others.”

But in her letter, Clayton said having to demonstrate that the flag disrupts the learning environment “sidesteps” community concerns about the Confederate flag.

“We believe that this is symptomatic of racial and cultural bias in the district, which is inextricably tied to the persistent underperformance of African American children,” she said in her letter. “To our school community, a ban on the Confederate flag would signal that OCS is serious about equity.”

Other school districts

Chatham County Schools bans the Confederate flag on student clothing, according to its code of student conduct.

The code prohibits “clothing, jewelry, and/or head wear that is decorated with profane words, vulgar language, gang related signs or colors, obscene pictures, images, or drawings, suggestive slogans, racial slogans, and/or other material reasonably likely to cause a substantial disruption in the school setting, including the Confederate battle flag.”

Neither Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools nor Durham Public Schools bans the Confederate flag, spokesmen for the two districts said Tuesday.

“Displaying the Confederate flag on clothing, bumper stickers, etc., is considered a form of ‘speech’ and is subject to at least some protection by the First Amendment,” DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said in an email.

Student free speech is not absolute in the school setting, and principals have discretion, Sudderth said.

“The Supreme Court has determined that student speech can be prohibited or punished if it causes a ‘substantial and material disruption’ to the learning environment or the school administration can point to specific facts ‘which might reasonably have led (them) to forecast’ such a disruption,” he said.

Schultz: 919-829-8950

Eye of the beholder

Surveys have found sharp differences in how blacks and whites view the flag.

A CNN/ORC poll of 1,017 adults conducted June 26-28, 2015, a week and a half after the Charleston shootings, found 57 percent of people saw the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride and 33 percent saw it as a symbol of racism.

Among whites, 66 percent equated the flag with Southern pride, 25 percent with racism. Three percent said both.

Among blacks, 17 percent equated it with Southern pride, while 72 percent said racism. Seven percent said both.

A UNC expert on Southern culture, in a 2105 interview, said it’s only relatively recently that the flag has been taken up as a symbol of Southern heritage.

“This flag did not represent heritage when it flew over Chickamauga, when it flew over Antietam,” said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South. “It was (representing) blood being lost over the issue of slavery.”

He likened it to the Nazis’ swastika, which the German government now prohibits displaying in public.

“People have a right to protest, but history is not on their side,” Ferris said. “Blacks are just as Southern and just as American as whites. All of us should be concerned and sensitive to that. The American flag is the flag under which we live.”

Staff writer Mark Schultz