What’s in a Flag? Photos Worth a Thousand Words

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The news of the past week has run the gamut from deep despair to joyous celebration, as millions of Americans grappled with the murder of black parishioners at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, while millions of others celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision upholding marriage equality.

Throughout this news cycle there has been an explosive debate over the Confederate flag and the need to take it down from government-sanctioned spaces, while, simultaneously, LGBT citizens and their allies have raised the flag of pride to commemorate a Supreme Court victory that makes this year’s pride season even more special.

This past week, there have been some amazing images of both flags, together and separately, that remind us that symbols do matter in issues of civil rights.  Below are some of the photos and cartoons that have made the rounds that speak volumes about flags and people’s passion for causes.

Activist Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag outside the SC State Capitol.
Activist Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag outside the SC State Capitol.

 

Confederate flag goes down, while Rainbow/Pride flag goes up.
Confederate flag goes down, while Rainbow/Pride flag goes up. Courtesy: Southern Poverty Law Center

 

 

The "General Lee" gets a new flag of pride.
The “General Lee” gets a new flag of pride.

 

Pride flags outside of the Supreme Court
Pride flags outside of the Supreme Court
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The Prancing Elites: Navigating the Landscape of Love and Hate

The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama
The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama

When I moved to south Mississippi in 1991, I joined a diverse community of gay people.  One of the most fascinating individuals I ever encountered was a black man known throughout the community as Miss Bootnanny.  She stood 6′ 5″ tall and when I saw her, it was usually at the little gay bar in Hattiesburg called Le Bistro–affectionately known as the Cha Cha Palace or simply “the Cha Cha.”

Taken circa 2000.
Taken circa 2000.

The ‘Burg was not a large enough city to have segregated gay bars–by gender or race–so we ALL went to the Cha Cha. Miss Bootnanny’s story, the little bit I gathered, was that she had been a drum major at Jackson State University, that out of drag she worked for a local garden center, and on any day you might see her twirling her baton on a public street or in the parking lot of the Sunflower grocery store.

While I never actually saw Bootnanny during the day to confirm the latter, she left no doubt that she had once led a marching band and knew how to twirl batons.  Her talent extended to fire, as I learned when I watched in amazement as she twirled flaming machetes, an impressive talent, to say the least. On a “normal” weekend at the Cha Cha, though, she always made an entrance.

One night, it went like this:  I was standing around chatting with friends when all of a sudden there was a commotion and we all stopped to look, because Miss Bootnanny had arrived. In she walked, dressed in a sparkling, sequined onesie, carrying one of those flag corps flags. She marched her way around the entire bar hoisting it into the air like the Pied Piper of Fabulous, which she was. (Note: Currently seeking a photo of Miss Bootnanny to add to this piece.)

And yet, I know that her life could not have been easy despite those moments of pure joy. Growing up black in America is difficult enough. And while I have written elsewhere that gay acceptance can be found in the rural Deep South, I know very well that there are limitations–particularly when LGBT expressions are further complicated by race and evangelical religion. To say nothing of poverty.

Having one Miss Bootnanny in a small community makes her eccentric, one of “our own,” and “non-threatening.”  But when more than one come together, much less five, and demand to be seen, that’s another story entirely.

Enter the Prancing Elites–the subject of a new reality TV show currently airing on Oxygen.

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The Prancing Elites Project follows a dance team made up of five openly-gay black men who live in Mobile, Alabama, and model themselves after the J-Settes–the all-female dance team that performs with the Jackson State University marching band. The Elites wear make-up and dress like the J-Settes, too.

The Prancing Elites live to dance–whether that’s in the stands while a marching band plays, being part of a parade (any parade), or performing for a New Year’s Eve party full of white folks. The latter has elicited some harsh criticism on YouTube, which makes one long for the voice of Langston Hughes to offer his critique of the ways of these white folks.

You may have also seen The Elites on America’s Got Talent or a talk show called The Real.  Yet in their new reality show on Oxygen, the realness is not just the love showered on the Prancing Elites from across the nation, a result of the media attention they’ve received.  It’s also the hateful responses from both black and white members of their local community and, in some cases, even close relatives.

And while they put on a brave face, and even regard their passion for dance and being openly gay as part of a longer tradition of southern civil rights, one can quickly discern that navigating this landscape of love and hate can be difficult for these young men to endure, as they must carry the added weight of being black and gay in a region that so often despises both.

When I watch the Prancing Elites, I have several reactions.

I fear for their safety.  I feel the pain of rejection of a  community that uses religion to justify its hate and disapproval.  And yet, I admire their courage to stand up to the bigotry of racists and homophobes.

I cheer them on in their bid to change the world for the better not by leaving the South, but by remaining here and trying to make a difference for those who want to follow in their dance steps. And I am buoyed by their confidence and the positive reactions they get from the same community.

I hope they squeeze all they can from the fame rollercoaster before the cameras go away and, in the process, help to make a better way for those like Miss Bootnanny who, all those years ago, simply wanted to be herself.

Me and Jeff Davis, Part V: Massing Flags for Jeff’s Birthday

jdmassingSince 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in Richmond, Virginia, has hosted an annual ceremony known as the “Massing of the Flags.” The event, held each June, commemorates the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is the one time each year that the UDC opens its doors to the public, and in my many research trips to the city, I was told that it would be interesting for me to attend this event.

In 2000, my curiosity led me to Richmond to find out what massing of the flags–Confederate style–meant. As I approached the headquarters I saw men in reproduction Confederate uniforms and women in dresses that cascaded over hoop skirts. It was a sign of things to come.

Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.
Headquarters of the UDC in Richmond, VA.

Entering the building, one walks into the large central room where the ceremony is held. Stretching along the wall directly opposite the entrance is a row of chairs, reminiscent of Masonic chairs, which at one time likely hosted the officers of the Daughters’ general organization. Above the chairs on the wall is the UDC motto “Think, Love, Pray, Dare, Live” represented on a five-pointed star with a cotton boll at the center.

I took a seat on the right side of the aisle and waited for the day’s activities to begin. Leading the audience in prayer, the minister did what Lost Cause devotees of a century earlier had done—paid homage to Jefferson Davis by likening his sacrifices for the South to those of Christ for humanity. Another speaker led the crowd in a rousing rebel yell, followed by the singing of “Dixie.” The day’s speech, like every year’s ceremony, focused on some aspect of Davis’s life and career. Then, I learned about massing flags.

Image credit: Virginia UDC website.
Image credit: Virginia UDC website.

State by state (not all of which we know to be Confederate, like California) was represented by a man and woman dressed in period attire. The man carried the state’s flag, as commentary about the state’s sacrifices, commitment to, or sympathy with the Confederate cause was read aloud.

Chests swelled with pride and the ceremony was observed by many others dressed in period attire, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs as the parade of flags passed by. Lest you think this was a ceremony of the aged, the Children of the Confederacy (the UDC’s official youth auxiliary) was also represented, just as in commemorations past.

Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.
Wells made national papers again in 2011 when an image of her appeared in USA Today as one of several South Carolinians participating in a Secession Ball.

This particular commemoration was marked with a speech by June Murray Wells, then president-general of the entire UDC organization. A resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Wells’ presence at that year’s massing came on the heels of the fight over the Confederate battle flag that flew atop the South Carolina State House in Columbia, which was subsequently removed.

In her speech recounting the year’s battles, however, Murray stayed true to Lost Cause form and painted the eventual outcome as a moral victory for Confederate organizations. She noted with pride that the flag, no longer flying out of view on top of the capitol, now appeared more visible to the state’s citizens, as it waved from a thirty-foot flagpole that stood directly in front of the building. “The pole is lit at night,” she told the enthusiastic crowd, and, she chuckled “should anyone try to remove the flag, it has an electric charge.”

That day Jefferson Davis’s birthday was marked in true Lost Cause fashion. A man who was a white supremacist was honored through modern day racist rhetoric. The NAACP, whose members Wells referred to as “that crowd,” and its boycott of South Carolina was, for those gathered to honor Davis, about “us” versus “them,” of white versus black.

And in their minds, the Confederate forces had won.

In Part VI of Me and Jeff Davis, I’ll talk about living on Jefferson Davis Highway.

The Larger Meaning of the King Holiday

From the Selma to Montgomery taken March 25, 1965. MLK, Jr. at Center.
Photo from the Selma to Montgomery taken March 25, 1965. MLK, Jr. at center.

Lest we forget why we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday today, we must understand that it is more than about one man, but about an entire movement for civil rights.  King is recognized as its most significant leader, but the leaders were many and it took thousands of men, women, and children to effect change in our nation’s laws.

So often, college students of this generation do not truly understand what is meant when they are told “people gave their lives for the simple act of voting.”  The new film Selma helps to illustrate that struggle for this generation, but today as we think about the meaning of the King holiday, it is worth being reminded that those risks were very real as seen in this original news clip from “Bloody Sunday,” the first of the Selma marches that took place on March 7, 1965.

Selma: Hollywood’s Latest Foray into the Civil Rights Movement

 James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James KaralesCollection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.

James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke
University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.

The new civil rights film Selma opened on Christmas Day and by January 9th will appear in theaters across the country.  In Selma, director Ava DuVernay examines what the film’s official website describes as “the story of a movement [that] chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.”

As previously discussed in this blog, the American South has consistently provided Hollywood with dramatic material since the dawn of film. For much of that history, movies have romanticized the Old South and often portrayed slavery as a benevolent institution. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, helped to right that ship by showing the brutality of slavery in all its forms.

Hollywood has also tried to “do” civil rights films before, though not very successfully.  Films like Mississippi Burning (1988) or The Long Walk Home (1990) presented a civil rights story where the heroes were white men and women.

This is not the case with Selma where DuVernay has focused her lens not only on well-known black heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but on the real heroes of the movement–local people whose grassroots organizing and willingness to march and subject themselves to violence resulted in changes to our nation’s laws.

Early reviews of the film are either glowing (see the NYT review) or have criticized how the film misrepresented President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role.  Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969 argues that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea and in his review of the film takes DuVernay’s version to task. DuVernay has responded with vehemence, tweeting that the suggestion that the Selma march was LBJ’s idea is “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”

As with any film that seeks to dramatize historical events, it’s always a good idea to read a good book to help you gain perspective.  For that, I recommend David J. Garrow’s Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Then see the film for yourself and decide.

Historic Natchez Conference: Civil War to Civil Rights

Boxwood Garden, Natchez
Boxwood Garden, Natchez

I’m pleased to be able to participate in the annual Historic Natchez Conference this week from Wednesday, April 17 through Saturday, April 20th.  The focus of the meeting is “Civil War to Civil Rights.”  I’ll be speaking about my new project about a murder case that made national headlines in 1932. It’s known locally in Natchez as the “Goat Castle Murder.”

William C. Davis, professor of history at Virginia Tech, is giving a keynote address.  He is the author of Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America (2003).

Inside the Eola Hotel
Inside the Eola Hotel

The conference will be headquartered at the historic Eola Hotel. As with many small towns with nary an airport in sight, folks there know how to show people a good time.

Longwood Plantation, Natchez
Longwood Plantation, Natchez

If you ever get to visit Natchez, you should.  As they say there, “Natchez is in this world, but not of it.”  Seeing is believing.