Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I was once a Rebel, Chicago-style

The Confederate battle flag is shown here in an historically accurate, if somewhat gruesome, setting. Illustration provided by http://www.harpweek.com/.

It was an autumn Friday afternoon in 1979 and several hundred high school students sat in the stands of their school’s football stadium – attending a pep rally that supposedly was getting them all worked up for the Big Game scheduled for that coming Saturday.

Then-Principal Robert Maxeiner provided what was supposed to be the rally’s “dramatic moment” when he walked out on the field to the 50-yard line and opened up his jacket, thereby exposing his special school-spirit vest – one that depicted the Confederate battle flag across his chest.

Off to one end of the stadium, an identical Confederate flag flew – albeit on the same pole underneath a U.S. flag. The school’s athletic teams were known as the Rebels.

Sports teams wore gray uniforms with red trim, as did the short-skirted cheerleaders. Marching band members wore a similar color scheme, although their uniforms were designed to resemble those of Confederate infantry, complete down to gray forage caps with a crossed-sword insignia. The band’s leader dressed in a pompous get-up meant to resemble an officer’s uniform.

The mascot? Ritchie Rebel, a saber-waving Southern soldier, who was prepared to die to keep his homeland free from the Yankee scourge.

Had one gone inside the school building, they would have seen gray and red everywhere, along with Ritchie Rebel logos, lots of rhetoric about the Confederacy and “the South will rise again” and even a Confederate battle flag painted on the floor at the basketball arena’s center court.

I can cite all of this because I was there.

No, I did not do any time in high school in Mississippi, Alabama or any place that was once a part of the failed concept of the Confederate States of America. I wasn’t even in a place like Cairo, Ill., where locals sympathized with the South but never tried secession.

I was right here in Cook County, Ill. The 1979-80 academic year was my first year of high school, and I was a student that year at T.F. South High School in Lansing, Ill.

Yes, I was a Rebel, although I’m sure a real Dixie-style rebel would think I’m nothing more than a damnyankee.

For what it’s worth, T.F. South that year lost the Big Game 13-0 to arch rival T.F. North (the Meteors, not the Yankees). The star for the Rebels that year was Mark Butkus, nephew of football great Dick Butkus. They were overcome by North’s star quarterback – a guy by the name of Mike Tomczak.

All that Confederate imagery overcomes in my mind a high school football game that saw so many of its participants go on to play for the Chicago Bears (Mark Butkus did one year on special teams, while Tomczak was the team’s quarterback at one point). It was ridiculous.

I thought so then, and I think of it every time I hear that people in the South still cling to the old battle flag as a symbol of their heritage – without caring that the same imagery brings to mind the days of segregation and second-class citizenship for African-American people.

With the Democratic presidential primaries now shifting to South Carolina, we’re going to hear lots of debate this week about the Confederate flag and its ideals.

On Monday alone, there were dueling rallies outside the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. One was to honor the memory of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while the other was meant to pay tribute to Southern heritage, which is what the flag’s supporters claim their banner is all about.

In a sense, the “Southern heritage” people won the battle on Monday. The Confederate battle flag could be seen flying from a nearby soldiers’ memorial by those people who were present to honor King. That is just a gross juxtaposition of images.

How seriously is the battle flag taken as a political issue?

Polls taken recently in South Carolina indicate that some of the state’s voters took it personally that both John McCain and Mitt Romney refused to support the concept of the flag, and chose to give their votes to other candidates in the weekend’s Republican primary. Also, GOP candidate Mike Huckabee is getting criticized in some quarters for crudely coming out in support of people who like the flag.

On the other side, many African American voters who make up a significant share of the Democratic Party’s base in South Carolina are looking for their candidates to take a stand against the banner and its ideals for which people like President Abraham Lincoln ultimately died to oppose.

I always thought the flag’s supporters were people from areas that were just too isolated from the rest of the world to understand the negative connotations carried by the Confederacy and its symbols.

For those Southerners who say of the flag, “it’s heritage, not hate,” I’d have to argue that there are aspects of the Confederacy’s heritage that are just downright hateful.

Not that such isolation is limited to the rural South.

The willingness of my high school colleagues to accept the whole Confederate imagery was due to a racial isolation that was in place in those southern suburbs back then.

Many of my classmates had parents who were raised in neighborhoods on the South Side, but then fled when African-American people started moving into nearby neighborhoods in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It was a white ethnic atmosphere (one generation removed) at T.F. South back then. My memory recalls there being six African-American students out of about 1,000 in the school the year I was there, although my search through the school’s yearbook only shows two – and none of them were in the graduating class of 1980.

I don’t think I was surrounded by a batch of segregationist-wannabes. It was just ignorance about history and what the Confederate imagery actually represented that allowed a batch of Yankees from the Land of Lincoln to use a comic-book version of the South.

How ignorant were my fellow students? I remember one who was convinced that the Confederacy must have won the Civil War, because Lansing would not have named a high school for a losing side.

Ignorance sometimes went too far.

I remember one event used by the Student Council to try to raise some money for school activities. Students purchased a series of tickets, then gave them to Student Council members – for which the council members had to perform tasks (such as carrying one’s books to class) for the student.

The event was billed as Slave Day. The very memory makes me cringe now. I can’t remember anyone getting bent out of shape back then.

I haven’t been back to T.F. South since I transferred to another high school district in 1980, although I understand they have toned down the Confederacy imagery considerably, particularly after members of the General Assembly’s black caucus threatened in the early 1990s to start playing politics with the school’s state funding.

Sports teams are still called the Rebels (Lady Rebels for the girls, just like the sports teams at Ole’ Miss) and wear red and gray. But everything else is gone. Underneath the U.S. flag at the football stadium these days is a red banner with the word “Rebels” in gray.

Modern-day students, I am told, look at our old yearbooks, see our pictures and think we were ridiculous – and not just because of the gaudy ‘70s-era clothes we wore to school. For that, I am glad.

Perhaps someday, a similar epiphany will be experienced across the land of Dixie.

My dream is that the day comes when our Southern brethren who also are an important part of the culture of the United States of America will see the nastiness in their continuing use of the Confederate battle flag and countless statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee – which only stir up the unpleasant memories of Jim Crow.


EDITOR’S NOTE: If anyone thinks I am exaggerating about what the school’s atmosphere was like, this website (http://www.tfsouth78.com/index.php) put together by T.F. South alumni from just two years prior to my time as a student there shows some samples of the old imagery.

Here’s a British take (http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article3359085.ece) on the Confederate flag situation.

Generations of suburban Chicago pseudo-Confederates showed their school spirit by slathering layer upon layer of paint on this 'spirit rock.' Photograph provided by http://www.tfsouth78.com/.


Anonymous said...

the only reason the school has toned it down is because blacks are taking over the school and lansing and it is going downhill fast just like it's sister school and cal city did when blacks took over there.perhaps you can do a report on that!!!

Anonymous said...

I would agree. There is much truth to the comment below The are school is now 33.3% Caucasian, and Lansing’s Crime rate has tripled
The school is threatened to be under state control, Also those white flight classmates of yours, same thing in Lansing Except to other suburbs such as New Lenox, Mokena, suburbs where African Americans aren’t ruining the school system.

Anonymous said...

amen!!! it's not racism to those with brians anyway but it's fact.put blacks in new trier and lincoln way,lincoln east and lincoln way north and west for example and see if in 3 years if that those pristine,intelligent.clean schools are still just that.gang tags and all sorts of stuff would be sprayed all over the school and stuff would be vandalized and tests scores down and violence and drop out rates up.sure white kids aren't perfect but many black kids make it that way.look at chicago englewood the most dangerous part of chicago.when white was one of the safest.and gary indiana same thing.fact not race.

Anonymous said...

brains sorry.

Grumpy said...

The picture of the Spirit Rock has a caption that says "Photograph provided by http://www.tfsouth78.com/". It should also include "without permision". I would expect more from a writer.

Anonymous said...

yes i go to this school and am white i hate it it is ghetto as hell many the blacks from Chicago ruined it with their section 8 housing.

Anonymous said...

I went to South during the bringing down of the shit poor flag. Good riddance to bad rubbish. ONLY a racist would support such a symbol of pure evil! FUCK YOUR REBEL FLAG! I wipe my ass with it! Then blame blacks for crime in Lansing? Blame the corrupt police department. Now that asshole Mano is running for Mayor? Don't make me vommit!!!! Im glad I live far from that shit now!

Anonymous said...

Great article on our country's sordid past. I'm saddened by the comments of people who think African Americans cause schools to become unsafe. I lived in Homewood, IL for 8 years up until 2003 before moving back to my home state and enjoyed the diversity immensely. I think folks who bring their children up in neighborhoods and schools where there is not much racial or ethnic diversity are bringing up children who will be ill prepared to function in a world of people with many different backgrounds. God made us all equal, yet we are all so different. I think we have much, as a society, to learn about what that means. The playing field is not level and, sadly, racism is still alive and well in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Going Downhill!!!! Thats why South has had to drop honors and AP classes in favor of a more remedial education. Shame on you TF South for dumbing down the school. The only racism going on there is against the white minority.

Anonymous said...

I was a freshman at TF South when the flag was removed. The ignorance there was appalling. People defended the flag for the most ridiculous reasons - often citing "facts" that were 100% wrong. Lansing was (and based on the downright evil comments posted here) still IS racist to the core. Lansing's crime rate was rising and property values were sinking way before the demographics changed because of a poor local economy made worse by terrible, corrupt local government.

Anonymous said...

ok black people thank you for making me laugh.when whites were the majority in all the suburbs out that way the schools had little trouble but were great.the areas had some crime but were very safe.look now that it is almost all black.thornridge now closing because black kids are dumb and school went downhill.rich south,central and bloom,crete monee,kankakee all great schools when majority white have so much trouble they have to have varsity football games at 6 pm with no sophs instead of 7:30.black people need to buy bill cosby's book wake up everybody.