BATON ROUGE, La. -- The flag blends a symbol of the Confederacy with the school colors of Louisiana State University, a combination that provokes anger from blacks and creates headaches for the university.
Black students held a string of game-day protests last year -- the largest attracting several hundred participants -- to demand that the school prohibit fans on campus from flying the banner, a Confederate-style flag in the purple and gold of the LSU Fighting Tigers. The protests resulted in a few scuffles and a lot of attention in the news media -- but no ban on the flag.
This year, the protest organizer is taking a different approach: Instead of protest marches, senior Collins Phillips said he's planning pregame tailgate parties near Tiger Stadium. Beginning with the season opener on Saturday, Phillips said the parties will aim to encourage students to discuss the different meanings the flag carries: from pride in the South to the shame of slavery.
"If we were to march again this year, I think it would be a little redundant. People would say, 'There they go, marching about the flag again,'" he said.
University officials consistently rebuffed Phillips' demands for a ban on the LSU-themed Rebel flag, saying a ban would infringe on First Amendment rights. But while those who like the flag consider it a symbol of both LSU pride and Southern heritage, the school is opposed to the idea of merging its colors with what is also a symbol of slavery.
"We have an intolerance of the display of this symbol, a fundamental rejection by the university, of the use of university colors to even vaguely imply that we would tolerate or endorse this display," said LSU chancellor Sean O'Keefe.
The school has no restrictions on flying the flags on campus, but O'Keefe released a letter Friday asking fans to leave them at home.
"We will not impede the constitutional right of free speech by banning this flag, but we ask that it not be flown on the LSU campus," the letter said.
The school also sent letters to wholesalers and local retailers, asking them to stop selling the flag -- and strongly implying that the stores could be frozen out in the future on the lucrative sales of franchised LSU flags, banners and other items. The flags retail in some stores for $35. To wholesalers, the school sent letters indicating that the flags -- with their taint of racism -- could cause the value of LSU's trademarks to drop, O'Keefe said. The letters included the veiled threat of a lawsuit.
The result, O'Keefe said, has been a sharp drop in the sales of the flags.
"These are serious businesspeople. They get the picture," O'Keefe said.
The owner of one Baton Rouge flag shop said he stopped selling the flags at LSU's request. Byron Smith, owner of the Flag Shop, added that the flags weren't big sellers anyway -- until Phillips started his protest campaign last year.
"I started getting calls like crazy" after the protests began, from people requesting the flags, Smith said.
Phillips' protests drew wide coverage on local TV news and front-page stories in The Advocate, the local daily. Before the homecoming game, three people were arrested for allegedly throwing objects at the roughly 200 protesters. Phillips said he and other demonstrators were spat upon and called racial slurs.
Phillips, 23, a general studies major focusing on communications and African-American studies, takes pride in publicizing the fact that a large chunk of the population considers the flag a symbol of slavery and racism.
But he'll be displaying images of that flag at his own tailgate parties. To spur debate of the issue, Phillips said he and other members of the Student Equality Commission will post a collage of pictures of the flag along with blank white poster paper and markers, so people can write down and display their thoughts about the flag's meaning.
The goal of the parties is to get people to discuss the meaning of the flag. Phillips said he hopes the discussions will encourage whites who are fond of the flag to stop displaying it.
"If we can start tailgating together as students and discussing this, I'm hoping it will trickle up to the grad students, the alumni, to the people who give money to LSU," he said.
Phillips said he expects the flag-themed tailgates will become a tradition.
"A lot of people grew up with the Confederate flag. This is going to take time. It's not going to happen in a semester," he said.