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When the Confederate flag flew at Harvard

The campus protested when a student hung the flag from her dorm window. But the school upheld it as free speech.

Beginning in the winter of 1990, some students publicly hung Confederate flags in their dorms at Harvard University, sparking debates over free speech and harassment. (ZACHARY M. SCHRAG/The Harvard Crimson)

This post has been updated.

Since the mid-2oth century, college campuses have been a site of disputes over displays of the Confederate battle flag — whether in dorm rooms, protests or sporting events. While many of these fights have occurred in traditional Old South schools, such as the University of Mississippi, historian John M. Coski explains that “the most celebrated campus stand in defense of the Confederate flag occurred not in the South but in the institution considered the very soul of Yankeedom and the polar opposite of Ole Miss: Harvard University.”

The tragic and racially motivated shooting last week at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., has refocused public debate on the symbolism of the Confederate flag, with various political leaders, including Gov. Nikki Haley (R), calling for the removal of the flag from state capitol grounds. In his comprehensive 2006 book, “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem,” Coski, a historian with the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, recounts the time a quarter-century ago when Harvard was embroiled in a fight over race, free speech and the Confederate flag:

On February 18, 1991, Bridget Kerrigan, a student from suburban Washington, D.C., hung a Confederate flag outside her window in Kirkland House. When she first transferred to Harvard from the University of Virginia in 1989, she had similarly draped a Confederate flag over her window at Peabody Terrace apartments. Apartment regulations compelled her to remove the flag. This time she was determined not to remove the flag, despite community pressure to do so. Though born in the Chicago area, Kerrigan was raised in the South in a household that honored Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. Asked months later why she hung the flag out of her window at Harvard, Kerrigan responded: “Just to remind me of home. That’s all.” Displaying the flag was not a simple tribute to her southern roots; it was also a gauntlet thrown down to challenge Harvard’s liberal tradition. “If they talk about diversity, they’re gonna get it,” Kerrigan said in a widely quoted statement. “If they talk about tolerance, they better be ready to have it.”
True to her word, Kerrigan kept the flag in her window for the remainder of the academic year, ignoring demands and numerous demonstrations. The pressure to remove the flag escalated from a meeting of house residents to a meeting of campus house masters to “eat-ins” at the Kirkland and Cabot House cafeterias to a silent protest march. Kerrigan participated in a forum at the Kennedy School of Government, and the Confederate flag issue dominated the discussions at Harvard University for a month.
Days after Kerrigan hung her flag, Harvard’s dormitory windows became a veritable forum for testing the limits of symbolic free speech. In sympathy with Kerrigan, a white student from Maine hung a Confederate flag, along with a sign “Racism No,” from his window in Cabot House. He pledged to leave the flag until there was further campus discussion on the rights of white southerners and blacks. More controversial was the decision of Jacinda T. Townsend, a black junior from Kentucky, to hang from her window in Cabot House a sheet painted with a swastika and the words “Racism No?” Townsend said she wanted to dramatize that both the swastika and the Confederate flag represented “genocide” and that neither should be allowed to be displayed publicly on campus. The Harvard-Radcliffe Black Students Association created a poster bearing the Confederate flag and taking issue with Kerrigan’s interpretation of its meaning: “This is a signifier of white supremacy,” the poster said. “The official flag of a defeated nation born of treason and financed by inhumanity.” Townsend intended her swastika to shock, and she succeeded. The campus Jewish organization convinced her to remove the flag but expressed sympathy with Townsend and pledged support in the effort to remove Kerrigan’s flag.
The administration, student government, and the editors of the campus newspaper all remained committed to the principle of free speech while agreeing with Townsend that the Confederate flag was a reprehensible form of speech. Hanging the Confederate flag outside the dormitory was “insensitive and unwise,” wrote university President Derek Bok in an official statement issued March 12, but it was a form of protected symbolic speech. Though Harvard, as a private institution, might be able to restrict speech more than public institutions could, Bok believed that testing the limits of free speech would prove a distraction from the business of the university. Instead of forcing students to take down flags and banners, Bok urged students “to take more account of the feelings and sensibilities of others.” The Harvard Crimson, a student-run daily newspaper, urged “censure, not censor,” and the undergraduate council voted down a resolution to ask the students to remove flags from their windows.
The official confirmation of free speech was hardly an endorsement of the Confederate flag. In fact, the discussion at Harvard revealed a predilection to believe that the flag was indeed a symbol of racism and hatred not unfairly linked with the swastika. President Bok’s statement treated the Confederate flag and the swastika as comparable “offensive” symbols. Students declared the flag the symbol of “a disgraceful and profoundly ugly chapter in American history, the era of slavery” and of “an illegal, immoral cause.” A southern-born student sympathized with Kerrigan’s regional pride but urged her to find another symbol that was not the symbol of “the South of David Duke, Bull Connor and Jesse Helms.”
Resentful of the censure from administration and students, Kerrigan later remarked that Bok “congratulated himself in an open letter for having upheld freedom of speech by tolerating someone like me at Harvard.” The experience left her convinced that “the real bigots are the intellectuals — the overeducated, Ivy-League left who tolerate only the ideas that serve their agenda.”

Though the incident generated significant news coverage, it was not the first such debate on Harvard’s campus. In 1990, a sophomore named Jon P. Jiles had hung a Confederate flag in his dorm window as well; he removed it and placed it in private view inside after he learned that some students found it offensive. At the time, Kerrigan described Jiles’s decision as “a victory for small-minded liberalism and… a defeat for free speech.” Jiles appears to have reconsidered his original choice to display the flag. “There is a lot of room out there on campus and in society for a little more respect for people’s opinions and positions,” he recently told the Harvard Crimson, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the controversies. “Just because you can stick a flag up on the wall doesn’t mean you should do it.”

Kerrigan would go on to share the copyright on the 1994 novel “Legally Blonde,” which was adapted into a 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon. (Amanda Brown is featured as the lone author on the book, but both names are listed with the U.S. Copyright Office.)

Read more Washington Post coverage of the Confederate flag debate and the South Carolina shooting, including:

How people convince themselves that the Confederate flag represents freedom, not slavery

Take down the Confederate flag, South Carolina

How ‘benevolent sexism’ drove Dylann Roof’s racist massacre