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Politics Mondays: America's Cross to Janis F. Kearney

The Supreme Court's ruling, last Monday, on Virginia's flag-burning law, was rather like a chill wind that stops short of causing a cold, yet leaves one with nagging aches in joints and extremities. This latest ruling gives me reason to be wary that we are moving farther away from righting wrongs to protect the weak and innocent; and moving stealthily toward efforts to validate the actions of those who need protection least.

The Justices' fractured ruling, while upholding Virginia's 50-year ban of cross-burning; weakened the extent of this law by saying states and their prosecutors must now prove a cross-burner's intent. More fodder for removing the fences around those who need the protection of this court, while providing fences around those who don't.

Most amazing is the fact that 12 brilliant men and women, with full access to America's history, and personal memories to boot, could view the burning of a cross as anything other than an act of terrorism. What historical archives could they possibly have been researching for this case?

The Cross is one more symbol of America's dichotomous relationship with religion; and, how religion, at some level has always played a role in oppression and fear. Much like the American flag that has come to symbolize more than mere patriotism and love for one's country in this time of fear and suspicion of those not like us.

My memories, too, of the Cross, are mixed.

I remember the thousands of Sunday mornings my siblings and I trailed my parents into Rankin Chapel for Sunday school The few minutes of warm and friendly chatter before my father, the Sunday school Superintendent would tap the morning bell, as if to say, "It's 10 o'clock, and time to get serious." Seconds after we'd all straightened ourselves, and sat more primly on the dark hardwood pews, Mrs. Baker, my mother's best friend, would begin, in her strong, but tremulous voice, the devotion song for that Sunday morning. Most times, Mrs. Baker's song of choice would be those that spoke of a Cross. "Near the Cross," or "Old Rugged Cross," or another song of imagined joy, about "Meeting at the Cross, By and By." These songs created a vision of a giant wooden cross, pristine white, standing far upon a hill; of, lines of God's children - old, young, and multi-colored - kneeling, drunk with joy, and accepting our blessings for a life of benevolence.

By that time, I knew these same songs had been emotional lifelines for slaves throughout the south. These lifelines had survived that time, and had been passed on to their heirs. "At the Cross," is one of those songs that small Baptist churches sing to open their services, or close them; or call for new souls for Jesus. It is, to say the least, a time-tested rendition that generations of black southerners could probably sing in their sleep. In these such instances, the Cross is a sign of goodness, purity, chastity, devotion to one's God; hope for a brighter tomorrow.

It was not this same vision of the Cross that the Supreme Court dealt with last week; yet, one no less symbolic. It was a Cross that wreaked terror on millions of African Americans over the years. A Cross that caused nightmares, rather than dreams of a better life. A cross that shouted: "You're less than human...certainly less than the rest of America."

The crack in the door left by the Supreme Court for the cross-burners of the world leaves me uneasy. It is a quiet heeding that the safety and security that African Americans imagined, over the last 50 years, is slowly, but shrewdly being snatched from under us. It is decisions such as these that force us to realize how momentary such protections are.

Thankfully, most of the Supreme Court justices agreed that, given its history, cross burning could not be watered down to something as anemic as burning a match and holding it in the air; or burning one's draft card, and throwing it into the streets. Throwing a flaming cross into another's yard, speaks volumes more.

In the end, what the Supreme Court's decision tells us is a very simple truth. Laws are man-made, interpreted by men, and changed or amended as men see fit. Living with this knowledge doesn't comfort us, but it prepares us for the sea-changes that civil and human rights continue to experience. Today it is the burning of a cross being re-interpreted to fit the times. Tomorrow...who can say? Only, that no right, no law is safe as the winds of change arrive.

Janis F. Kearney, a writer and lecturer, residing in Chicago, is a W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow, a former newspaper publisher, and served as diarist to President William Jefferson Clinton. Your comments can be sent to

Monday, April 14, 2003

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