All my life I have heard from time to time that the confederate battle flag is a beautiful symbol of Southern Heritage. This posting is my response to that.
The month of July, 2015 will be remembered in the history of South Carolina as the time when the Governor and Legislature of that State removed the confederate battle flag from the State Capitol building. Several weeks earlier a young white man sat as a guest in the most historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston, lest you forgot, is the harbor city in which the State opened the Civil War by attacking a fort of the United States. After listening to a Bible study discussion for a while, he murdered all nine of the other participants. The same young man had used social media to announce murderous racial animosity and simultaneously to wave the confederate battle flag as a symbol of his views. He had coupled the flag with racial animosity so deep that it led to one of the most cold blooded instances of murderous hatred. In other words the flag had served as the symbol of the hatred and the murder. The linkage of the confederate battle flag with various causes is the essence of the continuing disputes about its uses in many venues other than the capitol of South Carolina. Many have asserted that the young man misused a precious symbol of service for an end to which it was never intended. You know, it’s the Southern Heritage thing.
Other confederate symbols have been affected by the Carolina killings and the State’s response. In Statesboro, Georgia a petition has asked that the marble confederate monument at the county courthouse be removed to a private site. An effort is underway in Tennessee to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the capitol building; Forrest was a Confederate general credited with starting the Ku Klux Klan. There has been serious talk of taking out the portion of the Mississippi State Flag which duplicates the confederate battle flag. Any requests to move the flag or other confederate monuments is invariably met with the Southern Heritage thing.
Now I happen to have come by my own appreciation of Southern Heritage through substantial experience. I have never in 73 years spent more than a summer vacation anywhere North of the Mason-Dixon line, and only two summers at that—both of them over a half century back. My early life was full of symbols that resonated with the confederacy and its values. I was born across the street from the old capitol in Milledgeville, Georgia. There the leading politicians of the State had led Georgia to secede from the Union after the election of Lincoln in 1860. Much of my high school education came in that building, and I graduated with my class in the room in which the Georgia legislature proclaimed that Georgia was no longer a part of the United States and was a member of the Confederate States of America. The school was a high school and junior college, a military school which was attended only by white males. No black or female students were allowed, although the taxes of the State of Georgia and the local municipal government were used to support the school. An additional source of revenue was tuition from the families of students from out of town. The tuition and boarding fees were high enough to exclude those prospective students who were not affluent, and most affluent students were from old Southern family stock. Our uniforms were confederate gray and of course our sentimentalities generally reflected the values and attitudes of the Old South. My paternal father and grandfather graduated from the same school and its largest new building now bears one of my family names. To complete the picture my great grandfather and his father were killed fighting for the confederacy. If anybody alive today has a stronger background in the symbols of the Old South, I haven’t met them yet.?
So how do I feel about the removal of the battle flag from the capitol of South Carolina? I rejoice in the decency and compassion that gesture represents. That flag represents the historic effort to create a new nation from states torn from the Union by secession. “The Cause” of the confederate sympathizers was the success of that new nation. But why secede and why fight the most destructive war ever fought on American soil to defend that nation? To borrow a phrase from Lincoln, what impelled us to the conflict?
Defenders of flying the confederate battle flag often argue that the great war of the 1860s, whatever name one gives to it, was not fought to preserve slavery. Such arguments start by proving that in 1860 Lincoln did not favor abolishing slavery by force, nor did he start the war over abolishing slavery. But such arguments are disingenuous and misleading. Lincoln did not start the war to end slavery or any other reason. Lincoln did not start the war. The leadership of the Southern secessionists started the war by leading certain Southern states to secede from the union, and then by attacking that fort in Charleston harbor. And they sought to secede and create the confederacy as a separate nation because they were convinced that Lincoln’s election would mean the U.S. government would not enforce the fugitive slave act, would encourage new states to abolish slavery and would support the movement among the northern states to exercise their “state’s rights” to encourage slaves to flee to them for freedom. These fears all come down to a single passionate motive for the creation of the confederacy—the preservation of slavery by any means necessary. That is what that war was all about. And anyone who has studied history honestly knows that. That confederate battle flag is a symbol of the unsuccessful effort to preserve the most inhumane system of slavery in the Western world since ancient times. That slavery was based on the lie that black people are inferior to white people. And that lie is at the heart of the Southern Heritage for which that flag became the symbol. The war was fought to avoid the consequences of facing that lie.
But proponents of keeping the flag and other confederate symbols on public property argue that these are not just civil war symbols, but also represent Southern Heritage in other ways. How true. Sadly how true that. When the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that many states had been denying black citizens the equal protection of the laws by forcibly segregating them in public schools, out came the confederate flags as symbols of defiance again. And again the intended victims of that defiance were black children. Was not the confederate flag a symbol of hatred then? Perhaps not always. Sometimes it was a symbol of contempt, a sentiment that reserves hatred for supposedly more important targets. Again that flag was used as the symbol of defiance of the federal government. And again the justification was based on race and nothing but race. Southerners did not monopolize either the confederate flag or the cause of resistance to desegregation; the losing segregationists in the famous Supreme Court case was the school board of Topeka, Kansas.
But massive resistance in the 50s was not the end of the confederate flag as a symbol of contempt for black people. There was more Southern heritage to come in the 1960s as black folks and their allies marched and demonstrated for the right to eat in public places, to be employed and to use public transportation without discrimination, and the right to vote as citizens of the United States and the several Southern states. These demonstrations were frequently met by violence and hatred from white citizens and law enforcement personnel as well.
When the civil rights struggle reached its climax in Montgomery Alabama in 1965, the confederate flag was there again to express Southern Heritage. Michael Harrington tells the story of the role of that flag in that moment in the most pungent of narratives: “We stood in front of the capitol and everywhere Confederate flags were flying. And so the crowd defiantly sang ‘the Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the national anthem suddenly became a hymn of militant hope that the nation could become one.” Southern Heritage again.
Since the Selma to Montgomery March the confederate flag has often been displayed on military and memorial occasions in which some Southerners certainly were more focused on remembering soldiers than hating anybody. But there have been many others who coupled such occasions with feelings that were less than friendly to blacks and liberals and anybody else who might disapprove of a white folks only concern, and the joining of that concern to defiance of a black president or candidate, to affirmative action to correct racial injustice, or any other alternative focus. Now this summer comes this hideous violence in a Southern church towards Southern Christians who happened to be black. And once again the flag stood for what it has never stopped standing for—the very wrong directions of more than one hundred and fifty years of Southern Heritage.
Bill Shipp once wrote from a lifetime of experience that in the South there has always been single issue politics, and that issue has been race. The summer was horrendous. But out of the forgiveness of the families of the slain came the hope for a new Southern Heritage. The Heritage I have always believed us capable of developing from the honest examination of our past. That Heritage has no place for the confederate flag or any other symbol of division and oppression and war and hatred. We need the heritage of those values given to us by the young Rabbi so many of us profess to worship. Even earlier the people from whom he came gave us a heritage based upon the love of God and neighbor and “the stranger among us”, whoever that might be. I pray we may choose that heritage in the spirit of the men and women who suffered and died to give it to us.