COLUMBIA, South Carolina – A black U.S. college student who drew complaints for displaying a Confederate flag in his dorm room window said he sees the banner as a symbol of pride and not racism.
Byron Thomas, 19, said university officials asked him in late November to take the down the banner associated with pro-slavery secessionist forces during the 1861-1865 U.S. Civil War after students and parents complained. They have since told him he can put it back up.
"When I look at this flag, I don't see racism. I see respect, Southern pride," he said. "This flag was seen as a communication symbol" during the Civil War, he said.
That history is debatable. The orange flag with a blue St. Andrew's Cross and white stars is a relatively modern rectangular variant on banners carried into battle by the secessionists, also resembling a rebel naval jack. The variant banner, confused by many with the markedly different Confederate national flag, was adopted as a symbol of pride generations after the South surrendered and slavery was abolished.
Controversy has surrounded the use of the symbol since -- some associating it with regional pride and others a legacy of the enslavement of Africans and their descendants and the ensuing century of often violent racial segregation. Several states incorporated its design into their official flags; South Carolina raised it over its state capitol for the war's 1961 centennial, where it continued to fly until widening opposition to the symbol brought it back down in 2000, nearly 40 years later.
Byron, a student at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, took the flag down at the university's request, but he said he's considering putting it back up after the officials relented. Thomas has drawn nearly 70,000 views since he posted a video online in which he acknowledges: "I know it's kind of weird because I'm black."
In a telephone interview Thursday, Thomas said a class research project made him come to the belief that the flag's real meaning has been hijacked. He said he wants people to thoughtfully consider issues of race and not just knee-jerk reactions to such symbols.
The freshman from North Augusta said his generation can eliminate the flag's negative power by adopting the banner as a symbol of Southern pride.
"I've been getting a lot of support from people. My generation is interested in freedom of speech," Thomas said.
But Thomas says his parents don't like the flag and he's concerned about their point of view, particularly since they pay his bills.
"I don't want to make my parents mad," he said. "I may wait until Monday to put it up."
Thomas' roommate Blane Reed, who identifies as white, said in a separate telephone interview that he never heard any complaints after Thomas put the flag up shortly after Labor Day. Each student has a separate bedroom and share living space with three others, he said.
Thomas posted a video on a CNN-run website that has logged more than 69,000 viewing and an article in a local newspaper brought more attention.
University spokeswoman Candace Brasseur said Thursday in an email that about two-dozen students had raised the issue of the flag with the housing office or with a resident adviser. On Thursday, she forwarded an email the school had sent to its students and staff, informing them that officials had asked Thomas to remove the flag "out of respect for his fellow students' concerns."
However, the email added, because of "the University cannot and will not prohibit these flags or other symbols that our students choose to display." It cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits laws abridging the freedom of speech.
Thomas is free to return it to his window if he wishes, Brasseur said.
USC Beaufort is one of eight campuses in the University of South Carolina system and has about 1,750 students, of which about 16.5 percent identify as African American, according to the school web site.