By R. Neal

East Tennessee's Blount County lies in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has a population of approx. 110,000 and is part of the East Tennessee Knoxville Metro area with a population of approx. 680,000. Maryville, the county seat, is former Tennessee Governor and now U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander's home town.

With its proximity to the main campus of a major university (the University of Tennessee in Knoxville), it's own four-year college (Maryville College, consistently ranked as one of the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the South), some of the highest ranked public schools in the state, the home of East Tennessee's regional airport, and host to some of the millions of visitors from around the world to the nation's most visited national park (the Great Smoky Mountains), you'd think Blount County would be a progressive community that embraces diversity.

You'd be wrong.

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Like the "eccentric" uncle nobody talks about who goes on a bender that makes the local newspaper, racial tensions have recently escalated to front page news.

Blount County remains mostly segregated. Most of Blount County's relatively small minority population (2.9% black and 94.7% white compared to 16.4% black and 80.2% white statewide), resides in a small area within the city of Alcoa. Approx. 58% of the county's black high school students attend Alcoa High School (30% black and 70% white), which is one of four high schools in the county. The others remain mostly white (Heritage High 98%, William Blount High 96%, and Maryville High 93% white enrollment).

Given those statistics, you'd think the recent racial tensions began in Alcoa.

You'd be wrong.

The problems surfaced at William Blount High School, a rural high school with an enrollment of 23 black students and over 1600 white students. In April of this year, 50 law enforcement officers descended on the school and put it in lockdown. According to school officials, "racially motivated threats" prompted the action.

As more details emerged, we learned that some black students had been targeted on a "hit list" and that a 15-year-old boy was arrested for threatening to bring a gun to school. The incidents occurred just before spring break, which helped calm the situation. But tensions remained when students returned to school.

In the wake of these incidents, William Blount High officials were reassigned, and five black students filed an $11 million civil rights lawsuit against the school, former school officials, and the Blount Co. Board of Education. The lawsuit claims the students were "subjected to pervasive, racial harassment including repeatedly being referred to in racially derogatory terms, by the continued presence of hateful and racially demeaning slogans, by racially offensive gestures, symbols and acts, by being racially stereotyped by faculty and students, and by being subjected to continuing threats of and actual acts of violence."

Then, in May of this year a Hispanic grocery store was vandalized. According to police reports, the vandalism involved broken windows, a broken refrigeration unit that had its contents destroyed, and racist symbols spray painted on the building including WP ("white power"), swastikas, and Nazi SS symbols. Information provided by a Heritage High School resource officer resulted in the arrests of five youths aged from 18 to 21 who confessed to the vandalism.

Sensing that more trouble might be brewing, Maryville City School Board officials debated a change to Maryville High School policy for the upcoming school year. It seems the Maryville High sports teams are known as "The Rebels", and the school mascot is "Johnny Reb". I'll give you three guesses as to the school's official unofficial flag, and the first two guesses don't count.

Perhaps mindful of the $11 million civil rights lawsuit over at William Blount High, proactive members of the school board recommended banning Maryville High's flag (and if you guessed that it's the Rebel Flag, a/k/a the Confederate Battle Flag, you guessed correctly) at school functions and sporting events.

Much drama ensued.

Presumably seeking cover from lawsuits claiming violation of First Amendment rights, the new policy was crafted as a "safety" measure, with the idea that all these Rebel Flags waving about at sporting events posed a public safety hazard (someone could get an eye put out!).

After a couple of public hearings and much debate, the school board voted this month (with one member opposing) to implement the new "safety policy" which bans among other things flags, banners, and "handheld signs and implements (e.g. poles, sticks and wires to support flags, banners or other such items)" at any school sponsored activity. The band's color guard is exempt. The Rebel Flag is not referenced, but implicitly covered by the ban. The policy also addresses "fighting words" and other disruptive speech.

To everyone's credit, supporters and opponents of the ban who attended public meetings and demonstrations were mostly civil and there have been no reports of violence or other unfortunate incidents. One must wonder, though, if this is the end of the latest chapter or the beginning of a new one.

We've all heard the arguments for preserving this Symbol of Pride in our Great Southern Heritage. The Confederate Flag is not a symbol of racism and hatred. It's a symbol freedom and independence, and particularly freedom from the oppressive tyranny of a Federal government too big for its britches. Oh, yeah, and the Civil War was not about slavery. It was about States' Rights. (Which presumably includes the state's right to allow its citizens to own slaves.)

The controversy had received some national attention, and resulted in some strange bedfellows. In perhaps the most puzzling alliance, the former president of a local NAACP chapter in North Carolina joined with the Sons of the Confederacy to protest the ban. H.K. Edgerton (pictured above) staged a walk from Johnson City to Maryville carrying the Rebel Flag to protest the "cleansing of Southern history." He says that "students are being force-fed a whole system of propaganda that tells them Southern history is tainted by slavery and Confederate symbols are racist."

I am amazed that we are still debating this in the 21st Century. It shouldn't be at all surprising to me, though, living in a region where folks proudly hang paintings of Jeff Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest on their living room walls. We know there is still racism and hatred festering just under the surface, but we sometimes wonder how successive generations learn it. Hatred is not something you are born with. It is something you are taught. One can only conclude they are being taught at home. Consider these remarks from a recent letter to the local paper:
"Every time that the 'liberal pinko do-gooder' crowd starts pointing the finger of political correctness at the Rebel flag, they need to realize that there are actually three fingers of hypocrisy pointing back their way. In their liberal 'enlightened' crusade to rid the world of all things oppressive, they themselves become the fascists and oppressors.

These liberal fruitcakes need to practice what they preach or hit the road. I, for one, am tired of their irrational whining and reflex babbling.

The Maryville City School Board's recent actions concerning the Rebel flag are just the top of the proverbial iceberg of misrepresentation being carried out by our local governing bodies.

We, as Blount Countians and ultimately as Americans, have got to take back our local government from the heathen grip of the liberal minority's lawyers and the land developing racketeers before there's nothing left to uniquely call Blount County home.

Now is the time to honor our southern ancestry with a 'Volunteer' willingness to fight the good fight. Now is the time to 'Rebel' against the oppressiveness of the liberal minority and the racketeering practices of our local government officials."
(Although it would be disingenuous to suggest a correlation at this point, Blount County is also one of the most Republican counties in East Tennessee, which happens to be the most Republican region in the Red State of Tennessee. Blount County went 68% for Bush in 2004, v. 57% for the state at large. Blount County went 75% for U.S. Senator Dr. Bill Frist in 2000, 89% for popular Republican Congressman Jimmy Duncan, and 81% for Duncan again in 2004. Blount County's state representatives and local elected officials are almost exclusively Republican.)

Clearly those who opposed the ban (and others such as the school board member who was surprised to learn that black students resent the Rebel Flag) do not represent the whole of Blount County. In fact, there are probably some less oblivious white people in Blount County who have actually talked to a black person at one time or another. But sadly this is old news to the "liberal pinko do-gooder crowd" in the South, where such drama plays out on all too frequent a basis.

Regardless, I hope for a day when we can finally put all this behind us. With all due respect to our collective Southern Heritage, some symbols of the old times here are best forgotten. And I'm not talking about biscuits and gravy, pecan pie, or Mint Juleps. Especially not the Mint Juleps.

OK, then.