March 27, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


The flag bearers are warriors. 

And warriors respect persistence, even when they believe the other side is wrong.

Jones, 48, turns to his 10-year-old son, Jeb, whose red, white and blue flag is flapping wildly. "Back up, son," Jones says in his cheerful Virginia drawl. "The flag's in everybody's face."

It is. And it has been, for a year and a half now, outside the DuPont plant just south of Richmond.

IT ALL STARTED WITH A T-SHIRT. SPECIFICALLY, THE "Legends of the Confederacy" T-shirt Jones often wore to work, one of the many he owns emblazoned with the battle flag. His passion for all things Confederate began 20 years ago, when his cousin wrote a book on his family's Civil War ancestors. Jones has since become a relic hunter and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "One thing kind of leads to another," he says. "It's real, you know. It's my family."

Not everyone agrees. In July 2000, after receiving several complaints from employees, plant manager Mike Mayberry announced that clothing with the battle flag would no longer be permitted on the DuPont Spruance plant's grounds. In doing so, he noted that plant policy prohibits the display of images considered "obscene, disruptive or inflammatory."

Jones and his fellow Confederate enthusiasts responded. [The flag is none of those things,] But management held firm. No tattoos, no belt buckles, no re-enactors' brochures, no books, they were told. Nothing that shows the starred Southern cross.

The final straw, Jones says, was the bumper sticker. Plant officials told him to remove or cover the SCV emblem, which bears the battle flag, on his Suburban whenever it was in the company parking lot. He complied. But he decided he would not do so in silence. DuPont itself is built on old plantation lands, and a few Confederate soldiers still rest in small cemeteries on company grounds. Why try to erase history? he reasoned.

Jones enlisted the support of co-workers, fellow Sons of Confederate Veterans, and members of the secessionist Southern Party to protest the plant's decision. The first few Thursday afternoons in October 2000, 40 to 70 people gathered outside the DuPont plant, waving flags and bearing signs. They promised to return each week until the plant officials changed their minds. Just the bumper sticker, Jones said — that's all we want.

"We are willing to compromise," Jones explains. "Inside the plant, we'll walk the line. But back out in the parking lot? My vehicle's my own."

The press descended on the scene. All the expected sides weighed in. Southern-heritage groups applauded. Black groups booed. Jones' group found little support from potential defenders, like the Ampthill Rayon Workers union or the American Civil Liberties Union. Both organizations said they supported the right of private companies to define acceptable expression on their property.

Still, Jones replied: We're not budging.

And he hasn't. Attention from the media has long since faded, but the protesters continue to appear almost every Thursday afternoon from 3 to 5, in rain and snow and sun. When Martin Luther King Day fell on a Thursday last year, they abandoned their post for the day. "We took the high ground," Jones says; instead, the flag bearers gathered the following weekend.

Now, a year and a half later, Jones surveys his loyal legions with pride. "He did a little thing, getting that bumper sticker off the truck," Jones says of Mayberry's decision. "Now he's got all these flags out here."

"Here" is on the sidewalk just outside the main entrance to the sprawling DuPont complex. The plant employs about 2,700 people full time, 30 percent of whom are black. The protesters, signs and flags are in plain view of traffic on the highway and anyone coming in and out of the entrance.

A few times during each vigil, all the protesters scatter and hop up on the curb. "Back up over here," Jones says, motioning. "The bus is coming." As the bus opens its doors, employees, mostly black, step down and start walking toward the plant. Few look directly at the flag bearers, but those who do seem wary. Or weary. It's hard to tell.

For many of the workers at DuPont, the bright, fluttering Confederate banners have faded into the background, as much a plant fixture as smokestacks and safety reminders. "We just drive by, see 'em and don't see 'em," says Jerry "Nick" Nicholson, chairman of the Black Employees Network. "I don't even look. I just go through."

Nicholson is a burly, soft-spoken man who works on Tyvek Line Seven. For 25 years now he's worked the night shift making DuPont's near-indestructible paper. He chews a biscuit thoughtfully at Hardee's at 9 a.m, still wearing a blue jumpsuit from the plant, and explains why he and his fellow black employees have refused to enter the flag debate.

There's no denying that, at first, the situation was controversial. "A couple blacks wanted to say something, do something," Nicholson says, maybe stage a counterprotest with flags of red, black and green. But Nicholson, his fellow workers and his adviser, Bishop Gerald O. Glenn, decided cool heads would prevail.

"If they want to take on DuPont, let them take on DuPont. Don't get caught in the middle of it," Glenn, a respected black leader and pastor at New Deliverance Evangelistic Church, told Nicholson, and Nicholson agreed. The last thing they wanted was to ignite "racial scuffles," he says. So they allowed management to deal with the flag bearers.

"You can't fight little battles all the time," Nicholson says. "You got to pick your battles." Workers go to the plant to make Tyvek, Nomex, Teflon and Kevlar, Nicholson points out — not to argue black and white issues. "We have to get along," he says. "We have to live together. We have to work together, and we have grown old enough to look over some things."

Five or six years ago, Nicholson helped found the Black Employees Network at the Spruance plant. The network sponsors celebrations of black heritage and encourages its members to advance professionally. "We just try to bridge the gaps," he explains, then corrects himself: "Not bridge the gaps. Close 'em."

How are race relations in the plant overall? Nicholson pauses. "Mediocre," he says — but not strained. In a year and a half, tension over the issue has evaporated, Nicholson says. Everything's fine as long as the flags stay out on the sidewalk, he says — there is no place for the Confederate colors in DuPont. "The rebel flag is offensive to the blacks and to other people in there."

His position on the protest, and that of the Black Employees Network, is "we're just hoping it will die out — not die down." Nicholson sounds more tired than optimistic. "The warm weather'll bring them out," he predicts. This will be the second time he's seen the protesters reappear, like redshirted robins, in the spring.

But Nicholson's routine won't change. "I just drive on in and drive on out," he says. "Everyone see 'em and don't see 'em and keep going. Common courtesy, you know."


It's an unexpectedly balmy Thursday in January. Jones has shed his wool coat and stands talking with his fellow flag bearers. The air smells of exhaust from the passing cars.

Honk honk honk. A driver yells something unintelligible.

How do the demonstrators tell the difference between sympathetic honks and angry ones? You just learn over time, Jones explains. Mostly the negative ones are accompanied by a middle-finger salute. Or a projectile. "We've had a lot of bottles thrown at us," he says with a rueful chuckle. Once a chocolate-chip cookie came flying toward them, once a white sheet. A hurled coffee mug smashed bones in a protester's foot. The objectors are "mostly minorities, although a carful of white folks just gave us hell," protester Scott Peach says good-naturedly.

The flag bearers respond by waving and grinning. One man brings an electronic megaphone to each protest that blares a tinny but cheerful rendition of "Dixie" at passing cars.

Sometimes strangers stop, walk over and angrily ask why the protesters are there, Jones says. When they explain, he says, the passersby are relieved to find out the protest is about free speech, not racism. "I don't hate anybody enough to stand out here for a year and a half in the snow and the rain," Jones says.

Why, then?

"It's about honoring our ancestors, our heritage," Jones says. This is what all the men say, each in slightly different words. They acknowledge that the flag has been used to intimidate, but they maintain that's not their fault. "One may wave a flag for hatred — another may wave it for heritage," Jones says.

The protesters admit they're always seeking ways to display it without breaking DuPont's rules. Jones demonstrates how far the group has gone: He turns around and slides his jacket off his shoulders. Crossed over his red shirt are blue suspenders, printed with stars. The banner of the Confederacy is reinvented on his back.

"We can wear that, 'cause it's not a flag," he explains, smiling.

THIRTEEN WHITE STARS, A BROAD BLUE CROSS, A red field. Such a simple thing, it seems. Yet the Confederate battle flag possesses a unique symbolic power, say flag curator Rebecca Rose and historian John Coski, of Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy.

The crossed-bars design was never the Confederacy's national flag, Coski and Rose explain. Three other banners had that name, but all were short-lived. So it was the battle flag that became the enduring badge of Southern resistance. Seven stars, in the beginning, one for each seceding state. Two intersecting stripes form a St. Andrew's Cross, a Scottish symbol imbued with the ideals of antebellum Southern white culture, Coski says: chivalry and independence.

In combat, the flag took on a new meaning, Coski says. "It was consecrated by the blood of the men who fought under it." One of the flags in the museum's collection bears a rusty stain in its center — it was carried, Rose believes, by the 26th North Carolina Infantry, which lost 14 flag bearers in the Battle of Gettysburg. One after another, each man picked up the flag and staggered forward until he was shot and crumpled to the grass. The bravery of the 26th lives on today, now the stuff of legend and collectible hand-numbered prints.

When descendants of soldiers come to the museum to see the tattered flags their ancestors followed, "they're brought to tears," Rose says. "They're shaking." There is a power in every frayed wool banner that not even 150 years can erase.

Ironically, Coski says, the battle flag's creator was originally ridiculed in the Confederate senate "for proposing a design that looked like a pair of suspenders."

IT'S MARCH NOW, WARM AND BRIGHT. THE FLAG bearers have shed their coats. They have a new sign: "Honor Black Confederates." They made it for Black History Month, Jones explains — there's nothing wrong with celebrating. He and his companions are, however, upset the plant still won't acknowledge April as Confederate History Month. Why not? they ask.

When Chesterfield County designated that month in 1999, a fiery debate ensued. Heated arguments and twin protests at a local mall — one led by Bishop Glenn, one by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke — caused the county to create a dialogue group of religious and political leaders and citizens. "They were able to work it through and developed a Confederate History Month that was — what's the word? — appropriate for everybody," Jones says.

He proposed such a dialogue last May, in his most recent meeting with Mayberry.

A year has passed and nothing has changed. Mayberry's a good boss, Jones says, and hasn't made his job in the physical testing lab more difficult. Yet "he still walks around the plant and snubs all of us," Jones says. "The next move is up to him."

Mike Mayberry says there will be no next move. He sits, composed, on a stiff-backed sofa in the waiting room of the DuPont administration building, in a button-down shirt. There will be no dialogue, no compromise, with the protesters, he says. "Doesn't seem like we have a whole lot to talk about, these days." The flag will not be allowed inside the plant, on cars or elsewhere. Period.

Mayberry, an employee of DuPont for 33 years, has long since given up hope that one afternoon the sidewalk will be suddenly silent. "The Thursday that they're not out there, I'll be surprised," he says, with a tight-lipped smile. The protest has become the status quo.

Does he believe the Confederates' claims that the flag debate is about heritage, not hate, and has nothing to do with race? Mayberry pauses. Yes, he says. He believes that for most of them, their motives are what they say. But there was the one bumper sticker on the vehicle of a protester now gone, he recalls, the one with the mounted Klansman.

Heritage aside, the battle flag is listed as a hate-group symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, he says, and is not appropriate in the plant. Whether employee relations have indeed improved since the ban "depends on your point of view," Mayberry says. Many workers have thanked him, he says. He believes that, in time, all the fuss will subside.

For now, his only concern, he says, is to ensure the protesters are safe and stay out of any altercations. Thus, the plant pays an off-duty Chesterfield County police officer to stand patiently by his car, parked on the shoulder, every Thursday, along with a plant security guard. Sometimes they survey the flag bearers from a distance. Sometimes they stand around and chat with them.

The protesters murmur about a third watcher — the plant photographer, who hangs out across the street in his car and surreptitiously snaps pictures. No incidents have occurred, but Mayberry says the plant wants to keep a record, just in case.

DuPont continues to hold workshops on diversity and respect, Mayberry says — the kind of thing where employees watch videos and act out skits. Surprise: One's about the Confederate flag. "I think the guy in the vignette has it on his lunch bucket or something," he says.

While Mayberry talks in the administration building's waiting room, warming to the topic of diversity training, Jones comes in. He's pushing a cart full of training manuals and wearing a pinkish shirt and jeans — no suspenders, no red and blue. The men freeze for an instant. They are surprised to see each other in this space with the neatly arranged chairs and humming fish tank. It is neither one's natural habitat.

"Hi, Jimmy," Mayberry says. Jones says a quick hello in return and continues on his way.

Later, Jones is incredulous. "Like we were old buddies!" he exclaims. Then he adds, "That was good. I've never seen him smile before."

Mayberry has a different account. "I say hello to him," the manager says. "He doesn't say hello to me sometimes."

Jimmy Jones is a polite man, agreeable and plainspoken. So is Mike Mayberry. Both have worked for DuPont for about three decades. Both chuckle at the idea of starred suspenders, for different reasons.

Yet between these two men is only a cold cordiality. Since Jones raised the battle flag, a year and a half ago, they have nothing at all to say to each other.

The Confederate flag is "the most divisive symbol in America today," says John Coski, who's devoted nearly a decade to its study. Yet it wasn't always that way, he says.

Ten years after the Civil War ended, the banner was seldom seen except at veterans' reunions and funerals. "People knew better than to fly them," Coski says, "but they revered them."

In the early 1900s, when relations between white Northerners and Southerners became more cordial, the federal government relinquished many of the original battle flags captured during the war. Their return reinforced veterans' pride in the South, Coski explains, but the battle flag still meant memory and mourning, not racial hatred.

Groups with direct ties to the Civil War, such as the SCV and the Daughters of the Confederacy, sought to keep it that way, he says. In the 1940s, organizations struggled to restrict where the flag could appear. It should never be used politically, they said, or on transient objects like clothing. It was too serious a symbol for that.

But the flag took on a life of its own. White supremacists, college students and politicians all began to adopt the flag for various reasons, Coski says. It fluttered at football games, waved at Ku Klux Klan rallies, showed up on trendy beach towels and boxer shorts. It was lost to its original heirs.

"[Confederate heritage groups] once owned the flag. They owned its meaning," Coski says. Now no one does. "The more it's used carelessly," he observes, "the more difficult it is to limit its definition." The paradox of the battle flag, Coski says, is that its own proliferation has condemned it.

Thus heritage and hate have become mingled in the Confederate colors. Many would argue that racism was woven into the flag from the start, that anything Confederate also hearkens back to slavery. The only way to save the battle flag now, in Coski's opinion, would be to go back to restricting its use to apolitical, historical organizations. But is that possible? "Probably not," he says.

The battle over the Southern Cross motif has ignited in the news at intervals, most recently one year ago when Mississippi voted to retain the design in its state flag. In January 2001, Georgia changed its design from the battle flag to the state seal, with the Southern Cross featured in miniature below. And today, the NAACP still makes headlines as it continues to urge tourists to boycott South Carolina, where the battle flag still flutters on the grounds of the state capitol.

In every debate, "what the flag means to you and what it means are two different things," Coski says — yet each side assumes its interpretation is the only correct one.

To some, the flag is harmless, "just Southern." That's how Scott Peach describes a T-shirt he owns that depicts two puppies nestled in a battle flag-lined box. What's wrong with that? he asks. It's cute.

Bishop Glenn understands — and disagrees. "To them, it's about heritage," he says. "To me … as a young African-American male growing up in the rural South, I've gotta tell you it wasn't about heritage." The flag meant white men shouting "N----rs go home," he says, the ones who ripped raw gashes in his mother's lawn with their trucks. The flag heralded faceless figures in white sheets and pointed hats.

Still, Glenn says he respects Jones and his group for holding the weekly protests outside the plant. "They have a right to do that," Glenn says in deep, measured tones, "just as much as I had the right to wear the black glove on my fist to show the militant solidarity of my day."

Both he and the flag bearers are warriors, he says. And warriors respect persistence, even when they believe the other side is wrong.

Jones and his small band continue to patrol the sidewalk. "It could be over in a minute," says Scott Peach. But, he adds, it won't be the protesters who surrender. "We have no intention of quitting," declares Jones — after all, he says, the Confederate army fought for four-and-a-half years.

Let them protest as long as they want, Mike Mayberry says. He doesn't care anymore. The sidewalk is not his domain. Nor is it a battleground for anyone else at DuPont. Many employees on-site have even forgotten that the demonstration is still going on, he says.

The lack of adversaries doesn't seem to concern Jones and his fellows. The legacy of the Southern Cross is not victory, after all, but tenacity. "The life of a flag bearer is a very short life," Jones says, recalling the doomed 26th North Carolina regiment, who crumpled one by one as they sought to hold their banner aloft. The life of the flag, on the other hand, is long.

So the 10 or 15 faithful flag bearers continue their vigil. Sometimes they cluster together and joke around, sometimes they stand in silent lines along the exhaust-hazed highway. Jerry Nicholson drives by every Thursday, still seeing them and not seeing them. He wonders who exactly the Confederates are fighting, now.

The battle flags keep flapping in the wind. S


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