VIDEO: Black student calls Confederate battle flag a symbol of pride, not bigotry

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comNovember 30, 2011 

Byron Thomas, 19, a student at USCB Beaufort, holds a Confederate Flag in his dormitory room on Wednesday.

RACHEL HEATON, THE ISLAND PACKET

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For Byron Thomas, the Confederate battle flag isn't about race.

The flag that the black 19-year-old University of South Carolina Beaufort student hung from his dorm room window is about Southern pride -- pride that even a black Southerner can feel, he said.

Thomas, who grew up in North Augusta, said the South has been good to him. It's a land of church, football and "good eats," he said.

Thomas researched the history of the flag for a class project. That research convinced him the banner was about states' rights rather than slavery.

"That's all people want to see is racism. They want to see the KKK. They think of slavery. But that flag is a battle flag used for communication (during the fighting)," Thomas said.

When he hung it from his window, he knew it might offend some people, he said, but he thought it was time to start reclaiming a symbol that earlier generations consider racist.

Among those upset by the flag were USCB's Office of Housing, which asked him to take it down two months after he displayed it.

USCB spokeswoman Candace Brasseur said the housing office heard complaints from students who were offended.

Brasseur said Thomas was told about two weeks ago he could hang it in his dorm room as long as his roommates didn't object.

But he would have to remove it from his window -- a public space -- because it violates The Carolinian Creed, a code of "civilized behavior" for students that includes respecting the rights of others and discouraging bigotry.

Brasseur said the university won't comment further pending a legal review, which is standard administrative procedure on questions of legal rights.

Thomas contends the removal violated his freedom of speech. Thomas said he's been in touch with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and an attorney. He's unsure whether he will sue.

"There was no angry mob outside my window," he said.

GOING VIRAL

Before he took it down, he recorded an almost 4-minute video explaining his stance on the flag.

He wanted to know what others thought, so he uploaded it to YouTube and CNN's iReport, a citizen reporting website.

The video has been viewed more than 66,000 times since it was posted on iReport on Sunday.

Some commenters said the flag symbolizes racism.

Others agreed with Thomas, calling it a free speech issue.

Thomas said he has gotten emails and Facebook messages from friends and strangers across the country expressing support. He's been asked to appear on The Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show, a syndicated talk show that promotes a conservative agenda among blacks.

Some of Thomas' friends on campus have expressed their support.

Blane Reed, one of his roommates, is white and and defended Thomas. "It's nothing racial," Reed said. "He's standing up for what he believes in."

Jonathan Cantrill, another friend, also defended Thomas. Cantrill, who is white, called the flag a symbol of pride, and both Reed and Cantrill said they had heard no complaints on campus about the flag.

Some opposition, though, hit closer to home.

After the video garnered so much attention, Thomas spoke with his parents, who grew up amid the Civil Rights movement and have experienced racism firsthand.

They weren't happy, he said.

Thomas said he understands the struggles black people faced in the South. He knows about Jim Crow laws. He knows about lynchings.

But the flag only has as much power as you give it, he said.

"I'm trying to show my generation that it's time for us to form our own opinions on things and stop following the bandwagon of what past generations have been telling us," he said. "That flag's not going anywhere, and if our generation doesn't see that, we're going to be divided just like the generation before us."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content

  1. Byron Thomas' CNN iReport video
  2. The University of South Carolina Beaufort Carolinian Creed
  3. Overheard on CNN.com: Who decides what's racist?

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