"Historical context and use of the symbol as harbinger of violence and murder is at issue here," Hillsborough resident Katherine Walker tells the Orange County Schools Board of Education Monday, April 24, 2017, at Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough, NC. Mark Schultz mschultz@newsobserver.com
"Historical context and use of the symbol as harbinger of violence and murder is at issue here," Hillsborough resident Katherine Walker tells the Orange County Schools Board of Education Monday, April 24, 2017, at Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough, NC. Mark Schultz mschultz@newsobserver.com

Orange County

Panel debates Confederate flag as Orange County school board nears possible dress-code vote

By Tyler Roush

troush@heraldsun.com

June 10, 2017 07:14 AM

HILLSBOROUGH

The best solution to the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag in the Orange County Schools might come from within the classroom, speakers said at a forum this week.

The Hate-Free Schools Coalition and the Orange County Human Relations Commission held a Town Hall meeting Thursday night to discuss a proposed ban on the flag.

A panel of former professors, an attorney and two concerned residents, spoke about perceptions of the Confederate flag. A crowd of about 70 attended.

Ashley Campbell, an Orange County resident who considers the flag a symbol of Southern pride, described attempts to ban it as “an ongoing attack on freedom of expression in the Western world.”

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“Hate speech,” as some have called the flag, is still speech, Campbell said on a slide during her presentation. “Speech is not violence. Violence is not speech.”

Campbell said people’s perceptions have colored how the Civil War is taught in the classroom, at least since her parents were in school in Alamance County.

“I’m pretty sure they were taught that the North started the Civil War” when they attended Southern Alamance High, a school that transitioned away from a Confederate mascot.

Reginald Hildebrand, a retired history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, encouraged the crowd to “move beyond interpretation and on to facts.”

Hildebrand, whose research focus is the period of emancipation in the South, noted several instances where the flag stood for racial hatred beyond slavery.

The late Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” displayed the Confederate flag at his inauguration speech in 1963, Hildebrand said.

Harry Watson, professor of Southern culture at UNC-CH, supported Hildebrand’s historical context by saying “white liberty rested on black slavery” in the South.

Though historically the flag stood for white supremacy, Watson said, many Southern whites today consider it a symbol of rebellion and pride that says “I know where I am from.”

“It stands for certain things in the people who perceive it,” he said.

Latarndra Strong, founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, has pushed for the Orange County school board to ban the flag since seeing it in the student parking lot at her daughter’s school. Strong says holes in student dress code have sent girls home for wearing too short shorts while the Confederate flag has been tolerated.

“When issues around race and racism get pointed out,” she said, “we go back and forth about what is acceptable and what is not.”

Though Strong wants the flag banned, her coalition is also calling out for education.

From a legal standpoint, attorney Mark Trustin pointed out a recent court case that sets a precedent for such a ban.

An appeals court ruled in Hardwick v. Heyward that Nixa High School, Missouri, did not violate a student’s First Amendment rights by suspending her for wearing a Confederate flag skirt. The court ruled that any “likelihood that it could cause disruption was sufficient” for discipline, he said.

The Orange County school board will discuss a new policy for the student dress code 7 p.m. Monday, June 12, at Stanback Middle School. Board Chairman Steve Halkiotis says the new policy will focus on wording changes without an outright ban to the flag.

Tyler Roush: 919-259-4885

What’s next

The Orange County school board will discuss a new policy for the student dress code 7 p.m. Monday, June 12, at Stanback Middle School, 3700 N.C. 86 S. between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.