Rodney Abbott speech to Telstar student body, 4/3/92

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Below is a speech by teacher Rod Abbott about Telstar’s Confederate battleflag. It is published here to go with a story in the Citizen’s July 2 print and e-editions.

Before I begin, I have a favor to ask. I am going to ask you to listen to what I have to say. One thing about listening is very important. While you’re listening, you must really listen—really hear what the other person is saying and meaning. You can’t really listen if you are making up answers, debating each point, rejecting what is being said, or just letting your mind wander. For the next few minutes, I am asking you to try to hear what I have to say, and hear it with an open mind.

I was given this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you because the school is now faced with a decision about one of our school symbols. Before I say anything about that symbol, I want to talk briefly about symbols in general. A symbol is a strange thing. It isn’t the thing it stands for, but it often represents important characteristics of the thing it stands for. We often become so attached to our symbols that we will respond in unpredictable ways. I have seen people with tears in their eyes when the Stars and Stripes is passing in a parade. I have witnessed them cheer at the very sight of that flag. We come to associate very strong emotions with symbols. Therefore, symbols are one of the most difficult things to discuss calmly. The U.S. flag is one of our best-known symbols. It has 13 horizontal stripes, seven red alternating with six white, and, in the upper corner near the staff, a rectangular blue field, containing 50, five-pointed stars. The stripes symbolize the 13 colonies that became the original 13 states. The stars represent the 50 states of the Union. The Continental Congress chose the colors to stand for specific things. White they chose because they wanted it to stand for purity and innocence. Red for courage. Blue for vigilance and justice. Not many of us stop to consider these things. Yet the flag is a powerful symbol of who we are, what we stand for, what we hope to be. That much we know.

I believe that a symbol, if it is to be meaningful, must represent WHO WE ARE, not WHO SOMEONE ELSE IS. No one would suggest using a swastika, for example, to represent the U.S.

In order to decide upon the appropriateness of any symbol to represent us, we need to consider who we are. Just who are we, those of us who live in this area of Oxford County in the state of Maine? Look around. What you will see is people who are, for the most part, white. Most of our names are either of Anglo-Saxon or French origin. We are people who live in rural, small-town America, in an area nearly as far north as you can get and not be in Canada.

Is there any reason to question the choice of the Confederate flag as an appropriate symbol for us? I think so. The Confederate flag originated in the South during the Civil War. It was at that time associated with dividing the nation in two. It represented an effort to make the United States into the Divided States. It stood for the forces trying to maintain slavery. It became a symbol of defeat.

If we were to live in a rural, small-town part of Mississippi, perhaps one could make a weak case for using the flag as a symbol even today. It originated in that part of the nation. It was a battle flag for the ancestors of today’s white Southerners.

While I was looking through a book about the Bethel area as it was at the time of the Civil War, I found out that eight men from here left to sign up in the Norway Light Infantry after Lincoln’s first call for troops in April 1861 because that was the closest military unit to Bethel. At Lincoln’s second call for troops, 41 men formed something called the Bethel Rifle Guards. They fought, among other places, at Gettysburg. One of Maine’s regiments, the 1st, suffered more casualties in one battle than any other regiment in the war. The 1st Maine lost 635 men of its 900 during one seven-minute period at Petersburg. The 20th Maine Regiment may literally have saved the Union by turning back a Confederate charge at Gettysburg. The names prominent in the Bethel area during the Civil War included Chandler, Chapman, Ellingwood, Kimball, Lovejoy, Foster, Hastings, Bean, Grover, Barker, and Merrill. Do they sound familiar? They should, because they are who we are. Can you imagine the reaction of these people who sacrificed and, in some cases, died to save the Union if they could somehow be here with us today and find out that the flag that represents their local public school is the flag of disunion?

Before I continue, I want to point out something about flags and this area. Go out into the communities around her and look through the cemeteries at Memorial Day. In Andover, Gilead, Newry, Woodstock, and Albany, as well as Bethel. Find the graves of the Civil War veterans. Look carefully at the flags you find at the grave sites of these veterans. You will find the American flag, the flag of the Union, the United States of America. The flag these men left this area to fight for. The symbol of their sacrifice is definitely not the Confederate flag.

We must also consider to whom does this flag give offense? Quite specifically, it terribly offends black Americans. It was the flag of slavery. For more than a hundred years it has fluttered in the breezes at Ku Klux Klan rallies. It has shared the scene with burning crosses and white robes. It has stood vigilant at the scene of thousands of beatings, whippings, mutilations, castrations, and hangings. It has even been part of such events as men being burned alive because they were so bold as to question their status as second-class citizens. When I was just a little older than you are now, I saw the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama. Outside on the lawn was the U.S. flag. Up on the capital was the Confederate flag. Why? Governor George Wallace of Alabama refused to fly the U.S. flag higher than the Confederate flag because President Kennedy wanted a law helping blacks to get the right to vote and to use public facilities.

As I said earlier, symbols gain their power to affect our emotions because of the things we associate with them. Some pretty awful things have been associated with the Confederate flag.

How did we come to be associated with the “Rebel” flag? It wasn’t something that happened overnight. When this school began, our first symbol was the Telstar satellite. At that time the most advanced communication center in the history of the world was right here in this district. The name of the school was chosen in its honor. A replica of the Telstar satellite has stood here in our auditorium for almost 25 years. It was us. It was who we were. Later, people wanted a mascot to represent them at games. They chose Yosemite Sam because of his rebellious nature and fierce independence. Remember, Telstar was born in the decade of the rebellious Sixties.

In order to use Yosemite Sam, we had to get permission from Warner Bros., who had the copyright on the Yosemite Sam image. Some people objected to this choice because he was really a cartoon character in somebody else’s imaginary world, and because he was a little too violent in a random sort of way. But he caught on and has proven to be not very offensive to many. But what about the Confederate flag? At first, it was not very important as a Telstar symbol. It was chosen for the simple reason that people were looking for something to represent “Rebels,” the name chosen for our athletic teams. The University of Mississippi at the time used the Rebel flag to wave at Mississippi football games. Somehow, the deep South’s symbol became associated with Telstar. I wish they had chosen something else: a ram, a mule, a billygoat, almost anything else.

As time went on, people in this district came to use the Stars and Bars more and more often. At games as flags. On books as bookcovers. On bumper stickers. On T-shirts. In yearbooks. I have worried about this for a long time. Am I immune from the symbolism? No. In the ‘80s I took my family to Florida. The first time I saw the Stars and Bars on that trip, I think it was in Georgia, my first thought was, “What is a Telstar graduate doing here?” As you can see, the adoption of someone else’s symbol from somewhere else causes confusion.

Am I saying that Telstar students are racist? I certainly am not. Am I saying that Telstar needs to find a new symbol? I certainly am. Does the fact that we live in a remote corner of the U.S. excuse us from being part of the larger world? I don’t think so. Does the fact that we are mostly white with Anglo-Saxon backgrounds excuse us from being considerate of other people’s history and suffering? I don’t think so. Can we do better at choosing a symbol? We sure can.

One important measurement of maturity is the ability to look beyond ourselves and consider the feelings and positions of others. If there is anyone at fault here at Telstar regarding this school flag, it is the adults, including me, who have failed to recognize fully the negative potential of that flag and then to explain clearly to students what the problem was. For years I have been afraid that the powerful negatives associated with that symbol would bring unfortunate shame upon the school. This is not the first time people have expressed concern. American Legion veterans have objected because they found it offensive in the Legion Hall at Locke Mills. People have objected to the flag’s being included in Memorial Day parades honoring the memory of the war dead. Students from other schools have been disturbed to find it as our symbol.

We must take a good look at who we are, what our symbols stand for, and what we want to be. I challenge you to see yourselves as part of the larger world and to be mature enough to consider how we can unintentionally offend people who have a right to be offended.

I challenge you to find a better symbol of our Yankee streak of independence and defiance. I ask you to use your ability to think and reason, rather than caving in to your emotions. I have heard people say that to ask us to take down the Confederate flag is taking away someone’s freedom of speech. I’m asking you to truly consider what it is you want to say. I’ve heard people get very angry and defensive about “saving OUR flag.” Perhaps it is because there is something very attractive about standing up against the “Outsider.” There is a strong streak of “US against THEM” here in Maine. I believe you are capable of seeing that the real danger to our image is not coming from the outside, but from the possibility that we could refuse to see that we are part of the whole. There is no minority threatening to storm our barricades. We are, in fact, the minority. Even the University of Mississippi no longer claims the Stars and Bars as its school flag. Good for them. I believe we here in Oxford County, in this school, are the kind of people who are capable of rising above narrow self-righteousness and responding to the concerns of others, not because it is easy, not because it feels good to do so, not because we are being forced to, but because it is clearly the right thing to do.

We can be thankful that we have the opportunity to take action on this symbol while we can still do so ourselves. Imagine the negative possibilities if we had taken that flag to represent us at some interstate event, proud of some accomplishment of the school, and we found ourselves attacked for displaying a symbol that is seen elsewhere as a symbol of hate and racism? Do I exaggerate? Not at all. That flag is making a strong comeback at Skinhead rallies, where it is flown beside the swastika, and at Aryan Nation gatherings, where the venom of hatred toward blacks, Asians, Jews, gays, Roman Catholics, Hispanics, and who knows what else, is spread to help “purify” America.

I have been a part of this school longer than most of you have been alive. I teach here because I love this school. I care about its students and their reputation. I urge you to give up a symbol that divides us and find one that unites all of us in a sense of pride.

 

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