Walter Pierce

Regarding that West Monroe High School story

by Walter Pierce

I don’t believe the students at WMHS are racist — not all of them anyway — but the community's embrace of the Confederate flag most definitely is.

When I do sarcasm poorly, I go full throttle. I don’t really, actually believe West Monroe High School is, in and of itself, racist. My apologies to the students. That was unfair and painted them with a broad brush.

But high schools aren’t just a few hundred students and faculty. They are often, especially in small towns, the heart and reflection of a community, and of the thousands of parents, grandparents, cousins, kinfolk and many thousands more alumni. I’ve followed the debate over the Confederate battle flag at West Monroe High, home of the Rebels, over the recent while. It was tumultuous enough to make the state news wire, and the side that embraces the Confederate battle flag, it’s fair to say, won the debate.

It’s also instructive to note — which my broad-brush headline did not do — that embrace of the Confederate flag and the Rebel mascot is not universal in West Monroe. A handful of alumni shortly after the Charleston murders started a Facebook page urging the school to drop Rebel in favor of a more inclusive mascot. These alumni waged their campaign anonymously, fearing backlash and being ostracized, and their caution was well-placed: The push-back from those — white people, all of them — who support the Rebel mascot and waving of the Confederate flag at WMHS football games and other sporting events was robust and often ugly and bullying in its tone.

It’s hard for me to understand why so many so fervently support a symbol that wasn’t widely adopted across the Deep South by white Southerners until blacks began agitating for civil rights — a symbol that was co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan and the deepest, darkest impulses of the Jim Crow era. The only reasons I come up with are ignorance of history, racism or a mixture of both.

In historical fact, no soldiers ever marched under what is now the universally recognized rectangular symbol of the Confederacy; that flag represented the Confederate Navy, and only from 1863-65. It’s true, the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee marched under square versions of the “rebel” flag, and that square version was incorporated into later iterations of the Confederate States of America’s flag. But the version universally recognized today as the Confederate flag was a short-lived Navy flag that went into wide use as a symbol of segregation and white superiority long after the last cannon blast at Palmito Ranch.

It isn’t coincidental that Dylan Roof wrapped himself in this flag, literally and figuratively, before gunning down nine parishioners at a black church in South Carolina — the first state to secede from the Union — in an effort to ignite a race war.

These are inescapable if uncomfortable facts this Louisiana-born, white male, scion of the Confederacy feels uniquely empowered to point out, and this is the conversation and debate I welcome. I realize it’s hypocritical of me to use the term “conversation” after lobbing an ideological hand grenade like “most racist” in what was more or less an aggregation of a Times-Picayune story about the WMHS band being the only from Louisiana to participate in Donald Trump’s upcoming inaugural parade. But it’s done and I can’t change that.