Oxford, Miami take on contentious Confederate symbols

By Patrick Keck

When Mandy Watts arrived in Oxford nearly 18 years ago, she was surprised to see the Confederate flag made the trip north with her. A South Carolina native, Watts had seen the flag many times back home. She just didn’t expect to see it here.

“Coming to Miami was my first time in the Midwest,” said Watts, a Miami English graduate student who studies the confederate flag. “I didn’t understand why there was a symbol associated with the South in Ohio.”

Nationwide, discussions on the meaning of Confederate iconography have led to the toppling of several monuments and action by corporations in recent weeks. There is not a consensus to this question in the U.S. or Oxford. For some, the confederate flag is a symbol of southern heritage and pride, while others see it as a reminder and celebration of slavery in the Antebellum South.

For Watts, there is no argument to support the flag when considering the context and consequences of both the Civil War and modern white supremacists.

This week is the fifth anniversary of the Charleston Church Massacre where Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed white nationalist, killed nine African-Americans at the Mother Emanuel Church. Watts said it is apparent that the true ideals of the confederacy are alive today.

“I don’t understand why anyone would want to associate themselves, share symbolic space with that ideology,” said Watts, an ideology associated with slavery and the KKK.

Private citizens such as Watts have a right to support or oppose Confederate symbols, an ability given to them by the First Amendment. Yet, public officials do not have the same luxury. The amendment prevents the government from prohibiting free speech, which includes hate speech.

Oxford City Councilman David Prytherch said that free speech has to be considered in this matter, noting that Oxford has no official stance on Confederate symbols. Personally however, Prytherch expressed that the flag represents a history of racial violence and insurrection.

“I know that people see it as a value in heritage, but I think it’s clear most people know what it means,” said Prytherch. “The flag and the symbols it represents run counter to the city’s expressed beliefs and policies regarding civil rights.”

Among Oxford’s civil rights organizations is the Civil Rights Commission, a five-member group appointed by council dedicated to overseeing incidences of discrimination and prejudice. The Commission meets four times a year.

As a public institution, Miami is beholden to the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court case, Garcetti v. Ceballos. That decision prohibits public employers from disciplining or terminating staff, students, and faculty for any form of speech as a private citizen.

According to a June 9 statement from  Miami’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Garcetti ruling prevented the university from acting on retired professor Douglas Brooks’ racist remarks to Oxford protestors on June 4. His comments are considered a matter of “public interest and concern,” granting him a Constitutional-right to hate speech.

Motivated by current events, Miami President Greg Crawford recently announced to Miami students and staff through email on Tuesday, the establishment of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) task force. The task force will be constructed around five pillars:

“We must build a more robust structure that embeds this issue at the core of all our values and priorities and continuously generates new ideas for change, motivates action, and holds all accountable for reaching our goals,” wrote DEI co-chairs Vicka Bell-Robinson and Anthony James Jr. in a letter to the Miami community. “We are driven by a goal of creating a campus environment where each individual is valued and respected.”

As these conversations continue across the country, Watts said more energy needs to be devoted to white supremacy rather than the symbolism of the Confederacy, which has been re-hashed too much. She feels the flag does not have a place anywhere but museums and history books. These outlets promote education and facts while avoiding myths, she said.

“With the Confederate flag, so many people call it symbolic of their heritage,” Watts said. “I think there is a kind of slippage where they are saying heritage as though it means history.”