We welcome to the blog a guest post from J. Michael Butler, author of Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980. In 1975, Florida’s Escambia County and the city of Pensacola experienced a pernicious chain of events. A sheriff’s deputy killed a young black man at point-blank range. Months of protests against police brutality followed, culminating in the arrest and conviction of the Reverend H. K. Matthews, the leading civil rights organizer in the county.
Viewing the events of Escambia County within the context of the broader civil rights movement, J. Michael Butler demonstrates that while activism of the previous decade destroyed most visible and dramatic signs of racial segregation, institutionalized forms of cultural racism still persisted.
In today’s post, Butler points to two 1970s court cases from Escambia High School to show how Confederate symbols signified white supremacy after integration.
Symbols have historical meaning, and few are as polarizing as those identified with the Confederacy. Discourse concerning Confederate images has intensified since a white supremacist massacred nine African Americans during a prayer service in Charleston almost one year ago, and many Southern communities have questioned the appropriateness of having public schools, military bases, streets, and buildings named after notable Confederates. The trend shows no signs of slowing, as the Southern Poverty Law Center recently identified over 1,500 Confederate place names and monuments in public spaces throughout the country. Historians, bloggers, and other editorialists have had a metaphorical field day pontificating about the power of memory, cultural identity, Lost Cause mythology, and other themes that this issue illuminates. What, then, can yet another piece on Confederate iconography reveal about the topic that we do not already know?
I discovered the two court cases while investigating several episodes of racial unrest during the 1970s at Escambia High School (EHS) in Pensacola, Florida. I quickly realized that one issue linked the numerous school closures, student boycotts, and racially-based rioting over the nearly five-year period: EHS’s Confederate imagery. When the school opened in 1958, the year after the integration of Central High in Little Rock, students selected “Rebels” and “Johnny Reb” as their nickname and mascot, and adopted the Confederate battle flag as their symbol. As court-ordered integration progressed throughout the county in the early 1970s, the icons assumed greater importance to both white and black EHS students. Whites waved Confederate flags in the faces of isolated African Americans (who constituted approximately 10 percent of the student population), serenaded them with “Dixie,” and typically shouted epitaphs like “N****r go home!” during such confrontations. African Americans, for their part, refused to stand when “Dixie” played at school functions and ultimately fought back when provoked. In December 1972, a fight between white and black students over the symbols’ use escalated into a campus-wide riot that resulted in the temporary closure and black student boycott of EHS. Sporadic fighting, protests and counter-protests, and school board indecision over the fate of the Escambia High images characterized the remainder of the school year as the issue moved into the legal realm.
In January 1973, an African American EHS student and her mother asked for a permanent injunction against the school’s images. They did not file a new lawsuit; instead, they appealed under the Augustus v. Escambia School Board integration order on the basis that the symbols represented “symbolic resistance” to a court-ordered unitary school system. Winston Arnow, a federal district court judge, agreed. In a fourteen-page opinion, he called the Confederate icons “racially irritating,” declared they “generated a feeling of inequality and inferiority among black students,” and proclaimed them “a source of racial violence” at EHS. Because the county school board failed to resolve the conflict, Arnow reasoned, it violated earlier school desegregation mandates and he issued a permanent injunction against the “Rebels” nickname and all related imagery. His decision was not without precedent.
In 1971, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s ruling that “meaningful integration” prohibited public schools from displaying “Confederate flags, banners . . . and all other symbols or indicia of racism.” Smith v. St. Tammany Parish School Board (La.) determined that Confederate imagery “is not constitutionally permissible in a unitary school system where both white and black students attend school together,” which validated Arnow’s ruling against the “Rebel” nickname and related icons at Escambia High. Smith is the first case I have found in which a federal court connected Confederate imagery and white resistance to school desegregation.
Although the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court eventually lifted Arnow’s permanent injunction, it did so to protect school board sovereignty in light of the fact that Escambia High students had selected a new mascot and nickname. Although the court’s decision compared the Confederate battle flag to the Nazi swastika and said the school board “might be better served by letting well enough alone” concerning the mascot controversy, the issue created racial unrest on campus and divided the community through 1977.
So what can we learn from the EHS symbols dispute that remains relevant? Will evidence that federal judges linked Confederate iconography to white racism more than forty years earlier change anyone’s opinion regarding the meaning of those images now? Probably not. Yet the decisions are important because they provide legal confirmation to what is historically and culturally evident—symbols have historical meaning and, in this instance, those pertaining to the Confederacy often represented white supremacy in the years beyond integration.
J. Michael Butler is associate professor of history at Flagler College and is the author of Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980. Follow him on Twitter @dr_mbutler to learn more about his work.