It’s Finally Time to Talk About The Flags

The debate about the Confederate flag has been in the news of late and many of us have strong positions on both sides of the issue. I’ve always believed that before you make up your mind and take a firm stance, it is helpful to hear a reasonable and logical presentation of the opposing view. Let me admit before I begin that I consider the Confederate flag to be a symbol of the dark period of our history during which slavery thrived, but I do have my process, so let’s hear the opposing arguments…

Argument # 1- The Confederate Flag is Nothing More Than a Symbol of Our Old Southern Heritage

Are we to forget about the entire period before the Civil War and all of our ancestors who lived during those times? Weren’t there slaves in Northern states at various points as well during this period? Are we removing all flags in existence during that period because they are tainted by the institution of slavery? The State of Texas proudly displays its former “Lone Star” flag (even though it has been part of the United States for over 160 years) and no one seems to have a problem with that. The brief period that Texas was an independent nation is something the state chooses to remember, much like the other Southern states choose to remember their time as the Confederate States. So why is the Lone Star flag appropriate and the Confederate flag, not? Why is the heritage of the South any less important than the heritage of any other region of the country? Do we really want to erase our memory of the old South?

 

Argument #2- The Confederate Flag Has a New Modern Meaning

Who hasn’t seen the use of the Confederate flag in the popular 1970’s television show, the Dukes of Hazard, or noticed its use on license plates, bumper stickers, mugs and any number of other fun items…yes, even diapers! 150 years have passed since the end of the Civil War—aren’t we making too much of this? Today, the flag stands for the fun and adventurous concept of being a rebel, and what’s wrong with that?

Admittedly, my Googling effort was not exhaustive, but the two arguments listed above were the most reasonable I found. There were others, however, that were a bit more sensational. One article, in particular, that I will choose not to identify (the source is available upon request) offered the following thought:

“The Confederate flag and our Southern heritage has been mistreated and criticized againts as being racist. How can you say that our flag is racist? Because we owned slaves during the Civil War? That would be a horrible misunderstanding because Southerners were NOT the only states who had slaves. Union commander and general Ulysses S. Grant owned a personal slave. Also, if it were not for slave owners, the blacks being sent to America would not have a place to live. We basically gave them food and shelter, just they paid by working, not with money.”

Wow…so let’s say that we forgive the spelling and grammar and focus on the content. I don’t know about you, but I see a number of issues…

  1. Let’s reorganize one of the passages for better understanding:

 Owning slaves does not equate to being racist—in fact, it is all a horrible misunderstanding!

I guess a fair percentage of the slaves must have been wealthy white men.

 

  1. I wouldn’t dare paraphrase my second point, because a particular two sentence sequence perfectly illustrates a number of things:

 “…if it were not for slave owners, the blacks being sent to America would not have a place to live. We basically gave them food and shelter, just they paid by working, not with money.”

Ah, so there we have it! Slavery was a social program designed to solve the problem of all of these “Blacks” being sent to our shores by God knows who—it was a fair exchange, work for food and shelter. The author even classifies himself as a slave owner when he says “we.”

I stopped my research after coming across this last piece, and I must report that my position on the matter remained unchanged–so much for my process.

The Confederate flag was actually raised in 1961 in South Carolina to demonstrate the state’s massive resistance to the movement for racial desegregation, which was taking place at that time. A few years later when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, most American military bases throughout South Vietnam fittingly lowered their American flags to half-mast. The white soldiers at the Cam Ranh Naval Base, however, celebrated by raising the Confederate flag and burning crosses—do you think that was a tribute to Southern heritage or a manifestation of the new modern meaning of a fun “rebellious spirit?”

As for the comparison of the Confederate flag to the Texas “Lone Star” flag, let me point out that the “Lone Star” flag is actually the official state flag of Texas and is not associated with anything other than a successful revolution against Mexico and perhaps the fiercely independent Texas spirit. To be fair, there may be some bad connotations of the flag, but not on this side of the Rio Grande.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a somewhat significant element in the South that will not let go of their Confederate roots, an observation that was nicely depicted in a book I recently read called Spacecorp, by Ejner Fulsang. One of the themes in this futuristic tale related to this issue. Without giving away the plot, I’ll say that in Fulsang’s version of the future, not only did the Confederate flags never come down, the Southern part of our country broke off from the rest of the states to become the independent country of Dixie. Is that where we are heading? I certainly hope not.

So why are we now complaining in such a vocal way about Confederate flags in the year 2015? Is it nothing more than the massacre in South Carolina, which followed the racial incidents in Ferguson (Michael Brown) and New York (Eric Garner)? I think it is more than that, and this is where it gets interesting. While there are likely lots of theories, here is mine…

A couple of years ago, I took my mother to see a powerful movie called The Butler. The early part of this his film opened in the south in the either 1920s or 1930s, and it was clear that while slavery may have technically ended, it was still being practiced in principle—I’ll never forget the scene in the movie where the young mother of the main character was taken out of the fields where she was working side by side with her husband and child, to a nearby shed where she was raped by the young white plantation owner. The husband didn’t dare stop the rape and when he tried to object when it was all over, the young white plantation owner shot him in the head in front of his wife, child, and all of the other workers. I could just as easily have referred to the white man as the Master and all of the workers in the fields as slaves because this could have played out in the same exact way in 1845. As a matter of fact, this incident was not even a reason to stop work for the day. This was simply a case of the Master, choosing to entertain himself with one of his slaves, being forced to discipline another for the nerve of objecting. There was no crime committed—just another black man who didn’t know his place. My point here is that there were no complaints about flags in the 20’s & 30’s, because there were bigger issues with which to deal.

Then in the 1960s, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement began to usher in the first real meaningful changes, but still, there were bigger issues than flags, and it took us a good fifty additional years to focus on the topic. Yes, it is true that the terrible murders in South Carolina were the immediate cause of our Confederate flag debate, but in a more meaningful way, I’m pleased to note that we have tackled (but not completely resolved) many of the bigger issues, and it is finally time to talk about the flags. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a long way to go in terms of racial equality, but I’m pleased that we are finally at the point that it is time to deal with those offensive and hateful Confederate flags. The state of South Carolina finally took their flag down in July of 2015—let’s take them all down.