Kenneth Joel Zogry: The First Battle to Remove Confederate Symbolism from UNC
February marks the anniversary of the founding of the Daily Tar Heel, the daily student newspaper of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today we welcome a guest post from Kenneth Joel Zogry, author of Print News and Raise Hell: The Daily Tar Heel and the Evolution of a Modern University.
For over 125 years, the Daily Tar Heel has chronicled life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at times pushed and prodded the university community on issues of local, state, and national significance. Thousands of students have served on its staff, many of whom have gone on to prominent careers in journalism and other influential fields. Print News and Raise Hell engagingly narrates the story of the newspaper’s development and the contributions of many of the people associated with it.
Print News and Raise Hell publishes today in both print and ebook editions.
Before Silent Sam: The First Battle to Remove Confederate Symbolism from UNC
Though completely forgotten today, the first battle over removal of symbols of the Confederacy on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus began exactly 70 years ago, in 1948. And perhaps not surprisingly, the fight involved Carolina’s big-time sports program.
Bursting at the seams with returning servicemen on the GI bill, and flush with excitement about the possibilities of a post-war modern world, UNC was alive with the future and not fixated on the past. Football was king – the ascension of the school’s basketball team to national attention was still a decade in the future – and the sport at Carolina was in its heyday with Coach Carl Snavely and star halfback Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice, twice runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
But beneath the optimism of the clear Carolina blue skies lurked ugly realities. The South was thoroughly segregated, and UNC was open to white students only. African Americans need not apply. Even the school’s vaunted mantle of progressivism and free speech was, in places, only a thin veneer. In the face of escalating Cold War hysteria over communist subversives in America – a Red scare that would culminate with “McCarythism” in a few short years – the university was under pressure to prove itself true-blue and not, as conservative critics had charged since the late 1920s, a hotbed of sedition and un-American activities rife with “cracked-brain professors and baby radicals.” This became difficult as high-profile incidents involving Junius Scales and Hans Freistadt – two of the three-dozen or so students who acknowledged membership in the American Communist Party (out of a student body of some 7500) – garnered as much national press as did football star Justice.
In an effort to buck the hysteria and defend UNC’s liberal reputation, Ed Joyner, editor in chief of the Daily Tar Heel, decided to offer a regular column to another student party member, Bill Roberston. Robertson did not disappoint. In the fall of 1948 he wrote a series of increasingly provocative columns, including one entitled “Christ Was a Communist,” and another, “Liberation of the Negro.” Letters of complaint poured into the paper, but Joyner staunchly defended his decision to publish the columns: “as long as students write letters like this, he will be serving the purpose for which the Daily Tar Heel prints him. Robertson writing for Communism is the best argument we know for Democracy.” At the end of November, however, Robertson went too far, and Joyner abruptly fired him. It was not his blasphemous characterization of Christ, or his support of racial integration and civil rights that led to his dismissal. The column that got him fired was entitled “Put Away Stars and Bars,” calling for abolishment of the Confederate battle flag at UNC football games, where thousands of small versions were waved by students and alumni in support of the team. “The Confederate flag is the banner of a government which defended the barbarous institution of slavery,” Robertson wrote. “This government engaged in armed rebellion against the fundamental principles of American democracy; and for this reason, there is no difference between the Stars and Bars and the Nazi swastika.”
Not surprisingly in the prosegregationist South of the late 1940s, a furor ensued. Robertson was called a “Kremlin stooge,” and one student wrote, “Mr. Editor, the Confederate flag symbolizes the profundity and courageousness of conflicting American thought in a turbulent era gone by. It’s a beautiful flag, an honorable one, and I’m proud of it, suh!” Hans Freistadt rushed to Robertson’s defense, which likely helped to seal his fate. “The Civil War was not a football game, in which every Southerner must cheer his team,” Freistadt insisted, “it was a war fought over the issue of slavery; in that war, there was a right side and a wrong side.” The debate over Robertson’s dismissal was so intense that Joyner felt compelled to write an editorial explaining the reasoning for his action, citing a “continuous barrage” of negative letters, and noting that Robertson was not being suppressed, as he could write letters to the editor for publication whenever he wished. Joyner’s about-face on the matter, after having defended Robertson so strongly in print only a month earlier, may have been the result of intense pressure from the administration and alumni. An incredulous Robertson claimed that it was his column on the Confederate flag that caused his dismissal, but Joyner, perhaps half-seriously, joked “it would be more accurate had he blamed his dismissal upon the misspelling of Charlie Justice’s name in the same column.”
It is unclear when the practice of flying miniature Confederate battle flags at UNC games stopped, but incidents involving public displays of the flag on campus continued well into the 1960s.
Kenneth Joel Zogry, Ph.D., is a public historian and researches and writes extensively about UNC history.
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