Flag Fight Mars LSU Squad's Banner Year

NAACP launches drive to ban racially-charged symbol from Tigers' tailgates

When Louisiana State University’s third-in-the-nation football squad takes the field in Atlanta this Saturday for the Southeastern Conference title match, some die-hard fans of the Tigers will wildly wave a purple-and-gold banner modeled after the Confederate battle flag.

The scene may strike some observers as odd, since the flag is often seen as a symbol of racism, and the LSU football squad is largely black.

“It’s just mind-boggling,” says LSU junior running back Justin D. Vincent, who is black.

For the past several seasons, the purple-and-gold banner has provoked muted protests which have almost always fizzled quickly.

But both supporters and opponents of the flag agree that this year has been different.

In October, the university’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) started a full-field drive to get the flag banned on campus.

And NAACP members say their anti-flag effort is part of a broader campaign to increase minority recruitment, to secure funding for a campus cultural center, and to require all students to take at least one course in minority history.

This time, they say, the flag controversy won’t go away.

University Chancellor Sean O’Keefe has said that he will continue to allow the flag on campus because he respects the freedom of expression guaranteed in the First Amendment.

However, the university has publicly discouraged the use of the flag and has asked fans to express their school spirit with other, less offensive symbols.

Meanwhile, some fans have responded to the NAACP effort by buying even more flags.

The controversy over the Confederate flag burns brightly, and it has left a divided campus grappling with the equivocal legacy of the South.

A CAMPUS SPLIT IN TWO

Several black LSU students who spoke to The Crimson this month backed the NAACP’s anti-flag stance.

“It is the flag that the most notorious terrorists ever to come from U.S. soil, the Ku Klux Klan, waved to frighten African Americans,” Sevetri M. Wilson, an LSU sophomore who is black, says.

Opponents of the ban advance two main arguments: they claim the flag stands for southern heritage, and they say waving the banner is free speech under the First Amendment.

“I think you certainly have people who are flying it during game day to insult other people, which is wrong,” says Ethan J. Guagliardo, an LSU senior. “Other people actually feel a southern identity, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

“I think it’s protected speech, and this move to ban it is absurd,” says Jason P. Dore, a second year law student at LSU.

The First Amendment arguments haven’t mollified flag critics such as senior Collins Phillips, leader of the Student Equality Commission at LSU, who organized four anti-flag protest marches—three of which were staged on the days of home football games.

The lone exception was a rally on Oct. 24 in front of Chancellor O’Keefe’s office that drew more than 150 students, according to the LSU student newspaper, the Daily Reveille.

When O’Keefe held a question-and-answer session with demonstrators, pro-flag hecklers tried to disrupt the meeting.

“They had people in the background running around with rebel flags tied around their necks like they were Superman,” Vincent says.

At home games, the anti-flag marchers passed tailgaters outside Tiger Stadium, and participants say a few fans offered support.

But others shouted racial slurs, and some people even threw water and ice at the marchers, according to Wilson.

At the Nov. 5 protest, three tailgaters were arrested and others chanted epithets including “Go back to Africa,” “Go back to the ghetto,” and “Go to a black college,” says Wilson.

These same counter-protesters then cheer for a football team that is “predominantly black,” Vincent says.

ALL QUIET ON THE FOOTBALL FRONT

While the protesters on game days always dispersed after they reached Tiger Stadium, some carried signs into the arena—bearing messages such as “We Demand Respect”—and flashed them as LSU players came onto the field.

Yet, Ginger Gibson, an LSU sophomore who covers the flag controversy for the Reveille, says that players rarely acknowledged the signs.

Al M. Jones, a freshman defensive end on the LSU football team who is black, says the squad has remained too quiet on the issue. Some players remain neutral because they feel fans are waving the flags to support the team, he says.

“I’m the only one that is very vocal and active,” he adds.

Vincent, the black running back, supports a ban, but not for the same reasons as the NAACP chapter.

“The Confederate flag itself is not really a big deal to me,” he says. “I don’t think they’re doing it to promote oppression of black people.”

Vincent says he understands that the red-and-blue Confederate flag symbolizes more than just slavery, and that it represents southern heritage for some. But he thinks the purple-and-gold banner should be banned because the Confederate symbol has “nothing to do with LSU.”

THE UNIVERSITY’S THIRD WAY

LSU officials have agreed that waving the flag is protected by the First Amendment, and they have stood fast to their decision not to bar the banner.

“The First Amendment guarantees the ability to express yourself as frequently and as vociferously as you wish,” says Michael Ruffner, the vice chancellor of communications and university relations. “We don’t see protest and making your position known as a bad thing—we think it’s a good thing.”

O’Keefe, who took the helm of LSU earlier this year, finds himself facing perhaps the most difficult dilemma of his short tenure.

From December 2001 to February 2005, O’Keefe was chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In an op-ed for the Reveille in late October, O’Keefe discouraged the use of the flag because “many members of the LSU family...find the flag to be offensive.”

LSU has also asked all vendors licensed to use its name not to produce Confederate flags in purple and gold, Ruffner says.

He encourages students who feel strong southern pride to express that sentiment “in other means.”

Anti-flag students aren’t satisfied.

Following the arrests of the three hecklers, Jones says that there is no doubt the flag has become a disturbance. “On this campus, they have the right to regulate anything they want to if it is disturbing the peace,” he says. He adds that LSU’s continuing refusal to ban the flag is “a blatant slap in the face.”

Jones says he understands O’Keefe is trying to find a compromise that most people, including “a lot of good old boys, southern white men,” will accept.

However, Jones says that the delicate political balancing act is no excuse.

“Right is right, wrong is wrong, regardless of who you have to please,” he says.

The president of Harvard’s Black Men’s Forum, Tracy “Ty” Moore II ’06, writes in an e-mail that he thinks LSU’s response is “pathetic.”

“The administration should be concerned about governing its student body in the correct manner and creating a safe and comfortable environment for all students,” Moore says.

Opponents of the flag ban were more sympathetic toward LSU officials.

“The university is in a no-win situation,” Dore, the LSU law student, says. “They’re trying to encourage a more inclusive environment around the campus and protect the First Amendment, and I think they found a pretty good balance there.”

LEGACY OF RACISM

The anti-flag effort is not a one-issue wonder, leaders of the movement are quick to emphasize.

They hope to harness anti-flag momentum to achieve further goals.

“LSU always talks about how they want more African Americans and they don’t really recruit minorities,” Wilson says.

The administration denies these allegations.

“There’s probably a fair amount of miscommunication on those points,” Ruffner says. “We absolutely support recruiting minorities, and in fact we have had programs under way for quite some time to do that.”

Yet, some of the black students at LSU say that despite the university’s efforts, racism still lingers on a campus that is less than 10 percent black.

According to 2000 U.S. Census, 32.5 percent of Louisiana’s population is black.

“They’ve been trying to get rid of this southern racism, but they’re not doing a good job of it,” Jones says.

Other students, though, say there had been no problems with racial tension until the NAACP started agitating about the purple-and-gold flag.

“It seems to me to do a lot more harm to race relations,” Guagliardo, the white LSU senior, says of the campaign to ban the flag. “Normally people do just fine at LSU. I’ve never seen any race problems beside the flag controversy at LSU.”

INTO THE FUTURE

In the past, the LSU community has tended to lose interest in the flag debate after the football season ended, and even the concerted push this year based its marching schedule around home games. LSU played its final match at Tiger Stadium last Friday, and there were no noticeable demonstrations against the flag, according to Gibson of the Reveille.

Can the anti-flag movement survive beyond the gridiron games?

Lawrence E. Adjah ’06, the former head of Harvard’s Black Students Association who has spoken with friends at LSU about the anti-flag effort, suggests that the protests would attract more attention if they are not held while fans are eagerly awaiting the football kickoff.

“Even the protesters themselves leave to go to the football games,” Adjah says.

Wilson says that the campaign will continue to fight the flag.

“The core people who are working on it are really dedicated to what they believe,” she says.

Still, some students expressed skepticism about the movement’s endurance.

“After football season is over with, it will just die, and come next fall, somebody will start it all over again,” Dore says.

But even if the protests fade, he says they have opened up a dialogue on race.

“It has created an environment on campus where people are approaching race issues instead of hiding it under the surface,” Dore says. “It could foster more understanding between people who fly the flag and those who are offended.”

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.