SM East students’ debate about Confederate flag goes viral, attracts hundreds of thousands of views

Former SM East student Christopher Justice’s arguments against use of the Confederate flag have attracted national attention. Image from video by SM East journalism students.

A high school student in Houston, Texas, was killing time on YouTube a couple weeks ago when the site served up a suggested video.

“I was on YouTube at like 2 in the morning and I came across it in my recommendations tab,” said the student, whose name is Adriana and who tweets under the handle @chulopjm. “At first I wasn’t going to fully watch it because it’s almost an hour long, but I did click on it.”

The video, produced by students in SM East’s journalism program, captured a 2015 debate organized by students and history teacher David Muhammad about the use of the Confederate flag in modern American society.

A video still from The Harbinger’s coverage of the debate.

Adriana watched the whole thing, and was especially taken with one student’s arguments against use of the Confederate flag. She pulled an excerpt from the debate in which student Christopher Justice argued that the Confederate flag represented an explicitly racist past, and posted it on her Twitter account with the comment “white boy pulled out the receipts.”

Adriana didn’t expect much reaction.

“I posted the video about six days ago and it only received attention from my followers,” she said, “until then it slowly started getting retweeted. Then it grew extremely fast.”

Extremely fast, indeed. The video excerpt took off, and as of this morning, her message has been retweeted 104,000 times and liked 304,000 times:

The tweet has also sent hundreds of thousands of people to the full debate video on YouTube, which has now been viewed nearly 325,000 times.

Muhammad said he’s been blown away by the national wave of attention to the video over the last few days. Ebony magazine even picked up on the video and posted a piece about it on its website.

“Twitter’s crazy,” he said. “My phone has been buzzing with notifications non-stop. We’ve been hearing lots of support for the kids and for having the debate. But, no, definitely didn’t expect this to blow up three years later.”

Muhammad said the idea for the forum came in part from student Robbie Veglahn, who thought it would interesting to have student journalists document open discussions about a variety of topics. After working through scheduling, Muhammad arranged to hold the debate about the Confederate flag in his classroom during open seminar in fall 2015. Muhammad had prepared a few guiding questions and an outline for the format, but the discussion was mostly free-wheeling.

Muhammad said he knew a few students with strong views on the issue were likely to participate. But he didn’t expect Justice, the student whose arguments are featured in the viral Tweet, to be among them.

“I had Chris in class, so I knew he was super intelligent and that he read a lot,” Muhammad said. “But that really came out of left-field. He was never out there very much socially, so I didn’t expect for him to want to speak in front of a crowd like that.”