In the aftermath of the June 17 terror attack in a South Carolina church, many people have reawakened to the awful connotations of the Confederate battle flag. The issue has reached South Burlington, whose high school sports teams have been called the Rebels since the school’s founding in 1962. There have been calls to change the name to something that better reflects an increasingly diverse community.
Defenders of the nickname have called the controversy “crazy” and insisted the name “could mean a lot of different things.” One pointed out that Americans were the “rebels” in the Revolutionary War, so maybe that’s what it means.
Well, the Burlington Free Press came up with a creative approach. It sent reporter Haley Dover to leaf through SBHS yearbooks from the 1960s. And what did she find?
Confederate battle flags all over the damn place.
In the school’s first yearbook from 1962, sketches of Civil War era soldiers with their swords and muskets can be found placed among the student photos. The inside cover of the yearbook from 1964 is the image of a fall mountain scene and a Confederate solider holding the southern-rooted flag. Numerous pages throughout the 1960s show the flag hanging behind the basketball team or behind two Key Club members shaking hands. Cheerleaders pose with the banner on the football field.
Obviously, the Rebel nickname was inspired by the Confederacy.
Now, I don’t think anyone at SBHS was overtly racist back then. They were just completely clueless, in what was then a lily-white community and state.
There’s still a lot of that cluelessness around today. Indeed, there’s a prime example in the Free Press article itself.
The battle flag was less controversial during the early days of the high school, and people were less sensitive to race-charged imagery during the decades surrounding the Civil Rights Movement.
And when we say “people,” we mean “white people,” of course.
Are there any people of color in the Free Press newsroom? It’s hard to believe that a black editor would have allowed that passage to go unchallenged. It reflects the same kind of well-meaning ignorance that allowed SBHS to believe “Rebels” was an appropriate nickname — in the most contentious days of the struggle for civil rights.
As I wrote in my last post, the Confederacy as a political entity was defeated in 1865 and the slaves were legally free. But de facto slavery continued for almost a century longer, thanks to sharecropping and convict leasing. The Civil Rights Movement could be seen as a combatant in the Second Civil War, the conflict that tore down the remaining legal structures of oppression.
And what happened just as the de facto Confederacy was breathing its last? Renewed enthusiasm for the Confederate battle flag. Public displays of the flag became much more common in the Fifties and Sixties. The state of Georgia added the emblem to its state flag in 1956. South Carolina raised the battle flag over its state capitol building in 1962.
The very year that South Burlington happily adopted “Rebels” and started waving battle flags around.
If the battle flag was “less controversial” in the 1960s, it’s because black people had bigger problems at hand. They wanted the right to vote, the right to real independence and self-determination. They wanted not to be lynched or jailed for no reason. They wanted to walk down the street without fear. The flag was offensive even then, but it was far down on Maslow’s hierarchy.
Thankfully, we’ve worked our way through the most egregious forms of racism, so now there’s space to work on symbolism.
“Rebels” was adopted by SBHS at a time when the Second Confederate Rebellion was in high gear. The rebel flag was flown proudly at SBHS sports events at a time when the Confederacy was fighting its last, rear-guard battles. Nobody noticed much because there weren’t any black folks around. Or not enough to matter, anyway.
“Rebels” may have come to mean a half-century of school pride, but it still reflects the evil in its origins. It still has all those connotations for Vermonters of color, notwithstanding our pallid protestations that we really mean Ethan Allen, not Jefferson Davis or George Wallace.
Is the nickname really worth perpetuating that kind of negativity, that celebration of dark passages in our nation’s history?
I don’t live in South Burlington, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But if I did, I’d want a new nickname — one that the entire community can rally around.