THE GREAT NECK SOUTH REBELS
In light of the recent controversy over the Confederate Battle Flag, friends asked me to share the story of how we removed the flag from our High School over 30 years ago.
In 1958, a second High School opened its doors in the southern part of Great Neck, New York. To distinguish it from the initial Great Neck High School, it was named Great Neck SOUTH.
In keeping with the “Southern secession” theme, the teams were innocently named the Rebels, the mascot was a Confederate soldier, the Confederate Battle Flag was flown at sports events, parades, and homecoming rallies. Additionally, jackets, tee shirts, bumper stickers, hats, etc… were all adorned with the Confederate Battle Flag (photos attached).
No one, of whom I am aware, associated any hate with the symbol. As a matter of fact, a black woman, the Mother of one of my closest friends, would sew Confederate flag patches on our football jerseys to support and enhance the team’s moral.
Yet, ironically, as we entered High School in the early 80s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was still very active in the southern part of America.
The KKK had increased its paramilitary training as a result of the FBI sharply curtailing monitoring of the KKK in 1976. This was in response to charges of the abuse of FBI powers–which required evidence of actual or imminent violence before investigating Klan activities.
5 days before my 16th birthday, Michael Donald, a 19 year old Black man, was lynched in Alabama – The last reported lynching in America by the KKK. This was shocking and upsetting for all as it seemed like a throwback to a by gone era and didn’t belong in that day and age, especially not in America. It eventually led to a significant blow to the KKK.
Yet, while my parents tried to keep me aware of these incidents, a combination of youthful exuberance and overwhelming ignorance prevented me from making the connection between the CONFEDERATE BATTLE FLAG and RACISM.
Quite the opposite in fact. While seething with anger that racial hatred and violence still existed in our country, I PROUDLY & ENTHUSIASTICALLY wore the Confederate Battle Flag.
I simply saw it as symbol that unified and motivated our sports teams. As a matter of fact, as the Quarterback and Captain of our football team at the time, I would often wear a Confederate flag as a cape or as a hand towel hanging from the front of my uniform.
Sometime, during my junior year of High School,1981-1982, I came across an older article in the New York Times which had an accompanying photo of paramilitary Klansmen wearing camouflaged fatigues and holding weapons while posing in front of the Confederate battle flag (Photo Attached). I talked with my Father about it who gave me a deeper understanding into the history of the Confederate Battle Flag.
For me, it finally CLICKED. All the reading in the world wasn’t able to impact me the way that one image did.
I recollect it being the first time I had ever seen hate filled Klansman together with my beloved flag and it was the first time I made the conscious association between the CONFEDERATE BATTLE FLAG and RACISM.
I suddenly knew the truth associated with that flag, not what we innocently and naively wanted it to represent but, what it truly represented. There was no turning back.
The next day, I met with the Principal, Gil Blum, and expressed my desire to change our school mascot. Although he applauded my motivation and intentions, he said it probably would never happen. He said he had wanted to do that for years but was unable to get the student body to support the idea.
I told him we, the Class of ’83, would make it happen!
However, even at that young age, I knew you couldn’t take something away from people without offering a better alternative. As such, I spent a good deal of time talking with classmates and personally designing and illustrating a logo which would be “cooler” than anything we had before.
With the input of many close friends, I was able to produce a new logo based upon the REVOLUTIONARY REBEL, who fought for America’s independence, super imposed upon the “Spirit of ’76” flag (photos attached).
The school administration, teachers, and the entire student body, led by the Class of 1983, fully embraced and welcomed the change.
I was given permission to redesign the cover of our student handbook/calendar with a Revolutionary theme and was allowed, with the support and help of a close friend, to paint a larger than life mural in front of our school office (photos attached).
That year, our Football Team, a team which consisted of students who were Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, etc… became the first Undefeated, Division Championship team, the school ever had! Despite our differences, we were ONE TEAM! (photos attached)
The mural remains standing…33 years after it was painted… and the students of Great Neck South continue to embrace the spirit of the REVOLUTIONARY REBEL.
Just two years ago, we had our 30th year anniversary and had nearly a 90% turnout…three times the percent experienced by those who attended the reunion at Great Neck North.
I am certain if a bunch of High School kids can initiate and enact such change, well-educated and insightful grownups in America can do the same.
As offensive as I might find certain symbols, as a US Marine who swore to support and defend our Constitution, I wholeheartedly support each individual’s FREEDOM OF SPEECH. We must remember our Freedom of Speech is not intended to protect that speech, or those symbols, with which we agree but, to defend our right to say, and present images, with which others may disagree.
In other words, as a symbol which represented those who broke away from our Nation, fought against it, and were ultimately defeated, that symbol must not be allowed to fly over any of our federal or state property nor is it a symbol my classmates and I wanted to represent our school. However, even though the people who designed the Confederate flag proudly claimed it was a symbol of white supremacy and it was resurrected and flown to protest against our Nation’s Civil Rights movement a century later, the Confederate Battle Flag should NOT be banned in America…any more so than the Nazi Swastika or ISIS’s Islamist Caliphate Flag.
Each American citizen, group, organization, or business, has the right to decide with which images they want to be associated. But we must also realize ignorance is not an excuse in the eyes of the law, nor should it be with regard to the use of symbols. We must recognize that although we may not associate negative with a symbol, that does not minimize the foundation upon which that symbol was built nor what larger cause it supports. The truth will set us free.