South Cumberland Elementary School Remembers the Confederacy With a Lynching

Update: Thanks to Dan Weinfeld for sending along this link, which identifies Crossville, Tennesse as a possible Sundown Town. This certainly adds some important historical context to this particular discussion.

It would be easy to conclude that the backlash against Confederate monuments and the battle flag has died down since this past summer. You would be wrong. Public schools named after Confederate leaders or that embrace the “Rebel” mascot remain on the front lines of this debate. In recent weeks school systems in Petersburg, Virginia and Austin, Texas have joined numerous other counties across the country in renaming buildings that honor Confederate leaders.

Than there is South Cumberland Elementary School in Crossville, Tennessee. Crossville embraces its Confederate identity with a large battle flag painted on the wall in the school’s gymnasium along with this lovely scene located on an adjacent wall. That’s right. The teachers and administration believe that this is an appropriate scene to represent their values as a school community.

It is not known how long the mural has been up, but over night administrators ordered that it be modified after photographs surfaced on social media.

Regardless of where the community stands on this issue, this is as clear an example of teachers and administrators failing their students as you will find. It’s as if the images of Dylann Roof posing with a Confederate battle flag and the heinous murders in Charleston never happened just a few short years ago.

But it’s even worse. Crossville, Tennessee was recently chosen as a gathering place for the white supremacist group Stormfront. I am willing to wager that the Confederate battle flag was visible that day.

Over the past few months I have worked closely with teachers and students around the country to better understand the history and memory of the Civil War as well as the ongoing debate about Confederate symbolism. Those visits have included schools that still embrace the Rebel mascot, but I have never seen such an egregious example such as the mural above.

It leaves me to wonder whether the teachers and administrators know anything about the history of the Confederate battle flag and how it has been embraced over the past 150 years to maintain white supremacy. Teachers, administrators, students (and their parents) would do well to learn a little bit about the lynching of Will Echols in Mississippi in 1920, who was forced to kiss a Confederate battle flag before he was murdered. They would also do well to study how the flag was used as symbol of “Massive Resistance” against the civil rights movement during the 1950s an 60s.

Are these the values that South Cumberland Elementary School embraces?

Modifying this mural is certainly the right thing to do, but this is a school community that should go further and begin a discussion about whether it is time to cut its ties to Confederate iconography altogether.

44 comments… add one
  • Paul Colby Mar 3, 2018

    If you don’t live there why don’t you mind your own business.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2018

      Hi Paul. Thanks for the advice.

    • Msb Mar 3, 2018

      No man (sic) is an island, divided from the rest.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2018

        I seriously doubt that Mr. Colby follows his own advice. 🙂

  • Scott Ledridge Mar 3, 2018

    “Heritage” or not, how does that mural even get approved?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2018

      The short answer is that as a nation we still have a blind spot in our inability and/or unwillingness to acknowledge the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy. That it takes place in our nation’s public schools is even more problematic.

  • David Kent Mar 3, 2018

    When your “heritage” revolves around human bondage, and you still embrace it, and you think people who are against it have the problem……well…….that about says it all.

  • William Thompson Mar 3, 2018

    I live here.

    As a former education editor and sportswriter, I’ve been in every gym and school in Cumberland County. They all have similar murals. The mural in questioned showed the mascots of the other county schools defeated by the SCE Rebel. One, the North Cumberland Patriot, was hanging by the straps of his jersey. The manner of the mural was not unlike what you might have seen in cartoons long ago when the hero knocks the rival and he ends up hanging from a tree branch. It wasn’t implying a lynching whatsoever.

    Mr. Clark lives nearly 100 miles away but chose here to stir up the stink despite the school system he works for having a Robert E. Lee Elementary.

    Just saying…

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2018

      Thank you very much for taking the time to comment. It’s nice having a local voice on this thread. I guess I still would like to know how you justify such a scene given what we know about the history of the battle flag and the recent murders committed by Dylann Roof. Again, thanks for the comment.

      • Randy Watkins Mar 4, 2018

        My reaction to the mural before I read the comments was very different. My initial reaction was that it’s theme was anti-Confedrate in that it depicted lynchings that took place under the Confederacy or by lunch mobs after the war who used the Confederate flag as their stand. This is a good example of why context is important. Maybe an image of a school mascot standing over a defeated opponent would be less offensive.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2018

          Interesting interpretation, but there is no evidence that this was the school’s intent. Hard to believe that they would paint a huge Confederate battle flag on the gymnasium wall if that was the case. Thanks for the comment.

          • William Thompson Mar 4, 2018

            Cumberland County consolidated many smaller schools, at one time nearly 30, in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Martin Elementary, North Cumberland and South Cumberland all came into existence about the same time.

            Also at this time Southern culture and the Confederate Battle Flag were far more acceptable than today. In fact, a certain primetime show had the flag featured atop an orange car. The Dukes of Hazzard started in the fall of 1979 and ran for several seasons.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2018

              Do you know for a fact when the school adopted the “Rebel” mascot and when the murals were painted? Thanks.

              • William Thompson Mar 5, 2018

                I spoke today with the SEC principal Don Threet and my memory was pretty close. The school opened in the fall of 1980. The colors had been chosen already- red and white. Students and teachers selected Rebels as the mascot by vote.

                The flag was air brushed by a local artist and had been up for over 25 years.

                The mural was requested by the students who had seen similar ones at other schools. A student designed it and it had been up for over 15 years.

                Neither the flag nor mural had ever received a complaint until now.

                The mural has been changed so now it looks as if the North mascot has been launched up in the clouds.

                Again I have been in the school and gum numerous times and didn’t find anything offensive about either one.

              • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2018

                I read a local piece that provided most of this information this morning. Thanks for adding to it. Again, I am not surprised that people don’t find these murals to be offensive, but that’s part of the problem. It ignores a crucial aspect of our history in which these symbols were used to reinforce segregation and white supremacy.

              • Dave Lemen Mar 5, 2018

                So aside from the need for a better mascot and history curriculum, I’d say the students are in need of more responsible guidance on sportsmanship.

              • andersonh1 Mar 6, 2018

                “It’s as if the images of Dylann Roof posing with a Confederate battle flag and the heinous murders in Charleston never happened just a few short years ago.”

                The murders of those nine church members is the gift that keeps on giving for people who want to erase all Confederate memory from the public square. I wonder if those people would appreciate the way their memory has been used?

                To quote: You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

                “It ignores a crucial aspect of our history in which these symbols were used to reinforce segregation and white supremacy.”

                You ignore the fact that this has never been the only meaning of the battle flag and the “rebel”. They have also stood for patriotism and regional pride. That cannot be left out of this equation, though you clearly want to ignore that aspect of their history.

              • HankC Mar 6, 2018

                ‘regional pride’ is not quite right. It stands for a certain sub-culture of the region.

                This is one of the ongoing issues: the question of what it means to be ‘southern’.

                Many continue to act as if being black precludes one from being ‘southern’ in a general discussion.

    • Alishia Mar 6, 2018

      I have lived in Crossville my whole life and went to one of the other schools that has a mural like this. I hated it since the day they painted it. To me, a small child who never even thought of race, it seemed to encourage bullying and violence and made me dislike the mascot and wonder why it was ever painted in the first place. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to be a black child being a part of a school which glorifies a flag that has been so strongly attributed to the support of slavery.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2018

        Hi Alishia. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Dan Weinfeld Mar 3, 2018

    Maybe just a coincidence that James Loewen lists Crossville as a possible sundown town? https://sundown.tougaloo.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?id=298

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2018

      Thank you very much for sharing this Dan. It add important historical context to this discussion.

    • Msb Mar 3, 2018

      I’d never heard of “sundown towns”. Now I know about a new despicable thing. Sigh. But of course my ignorance didn’t change anything.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2018

        You will want to read James Loewen’s book on the subject.

        • Mike Furlan Mar 6, 2018

          I live in one of the towns on the list, in Illinois. Sundown towns were a national problem.

          • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2018

            They were indeed. James Loewen identified over 400 sundown towns in Illinois.

  • Mitch Mitchell Mar 3, 2018

    I’d say it’s unbelievable but I know better. That the best response of a few of your commenter is that you don’t live there is enough to prove that supporting racism & racists actions will never go away. Thanks for writing & sharing this piece.

  • Matthew Tenney Mar 4, 2018

    I think that most people who see the photo of the mural and the title of the article would jump to the conclusion that it depicts a lynching. Mr. Thompson’s addition does more than correct that impression, it challenges the objectivity of the author of the article for the author must have known that the readers would jump to that conclusion.

    But what about the actual theme of being a rebel? Americans don’t necessarily think of rebels as bad. We applaud rebelling against unjust laws; we applaud rebelling against the status quo, we applaud rebelling against racism. If we want to depict such a concept, I can’t think of any symbol more universally recognized than a confederate flag.

    I invite you to consider that this article is an egregious example of fake news.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2018

      A boy is hanging from a tree. That is a textbook definition of a lynching.

      • Matthew Tenney Mar 4, 2018

        I used to think that also but then, surprisingly enough, I learned that there is quite a difference between a harmless pretend prank and someone actually dying. Who would have thought?

        • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2018

          I don’t believe for a minute that it was done out of any malicious intent. That is exactly the problem. Perhaps you can explain to me how history teachers can highlight the way in which the battle flag was used to resist civil rights with how it is depicted on their gymnasium wall. What would be your classroom strategy?

          • Matthew Tenney Mar 6, 2018

            The flag isn’t the central issue, it’s the perceived lynching. If the mural didn’t have a figure that could so easily be intentionally misrepresented as that of a lynching, the mural would not be in the news. So as a history lesson, this article fits in well within the topic of “yellow journalism”.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2018

              It certainly would not have received as much coverage, but it does fit neatly into the broader story of public schools around the country that have distanced themselves from Confederate iconography.

              • Matthew Tenney Mar 7, 2018

                If I had been falsely labeled as supporting lynchings, I would also distance myself out of fear for my safety and the safety of my family. Good work.

            • Msb Mar 8, 2018

              The flag is impossible to miss and is carried by the “Rebel” who has lynched his opponent. They cannot be separated. That might have been some form of ghoulish joke if ex-Confederates hadn’t been so prominent in founding the KKK and conducting the reign of terror during Jim Crow. That historical background is impossible to shake; indeed the mural appears to celebrate it.

              • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2018

                That is exactly the problem. Take away the flag and this mural might deserve a more benign interpretation.

    • HankC Mar 4, 2018

      There are rebels and then there are Rebels.

      People frequently ‘rebel’: against taxes, plastic bags, high gas prices, and the list goes on.

      In my mind, adding the confederate battle flag to the mix acknowledges 2 things: a racist tinge and acknowledgment of a lost cause.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2018

        Of course, they could represent their ‘rebellious’ spirit by acknowledging those Unionists in their county who stood up against Tennessee’s decision to secede and stay loyal to the United States of America

        • woodrowfan Mar 4, 2018

          I’m sure that part of the mural was just off to the side that was photographed. 😉

        • London John Mar 4, 2018

          Yes. Before reading Mr Thompson’s explanation I assumed that the hanging figure in blue, who appears to be white, represented a Tennessee Unionist.

  • William Thompson Mar 7, 2018

    Here is a link to the artist who drew the mural while he was a student.

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10212991353077062&id=1188851800

    Pardon the language.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2018

      Thanks for the link. I very much doubt that this student intended to re-create a lynching scene. The problem, however, is that when you include a Confederate battle flag in the scene it becomes open to such an interpretation. Teachers and administrators should have acknowledged this, but as I have said many times before, these symbols have long been uprooted from their connection to the history of racism and white supremacy.

      • William Thompson Mar 7, 2018

        I will give that in this day and time the Confederate battle flag shouldn’t be painted on the wall of a school but many jumped to the wrong conclusion that meant the player hanging by his jersey was a lynching.

        Sometimes offense is taken when it is not intentionally given.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Mar 9, 2018

    “…if ex-Confederates hadn’t been so prominent in founding the KKK and conducting the reign of terror during Jim Crow.”

    The latter point is overly broad, and not at all accurate. The Klan was active and then largely crushed by the very early 1870s, and the overt activities its members employed blossomed into others actions which took a myriad of other forms. Frankly, most Jim Crow actions were conducted by the generation or two who were born after the war, and plenty of said actions were supported by whites who were not even native born Southerners. Moreover, some of the worst atrocities were committed well into the 20th century and often by people who had no connection whatsoever to the war. Oklahoma comes to mind.

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