The election of a Black president in 2008 triggered a backlash from white supremacists. The most rabid racists are easy to identify and counter, for they are open about their motivations and hatred for non-whites. Other white supremacists are more subtle and rally around catchy phrases such as "cultural heritage," "taking back our country," and other coded slogans which poorly hide their hatred for non-white folks. It is not coincidental that the American obsession with guns has reached unparalleled levels during Obama's presidency, as it is tied to the white-supremacist backlash. Conservative media, politicians, elected officials and conservative religious figures have either excused or supported the white-supremacist revival. In fact, they have legitimized it. All these factors led to the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina.
There are too many factors to discuss in detail so I will focus on a symbol that encapsulates all of them. That icon is the confederate battle flag (no caps needed).
The Origin and Meaning of the Flag(s)
What used to be the battle flag of the confederate army of Northern Virginia became the battle flag for all confederate armies early during the American Civil War. That flag is the one we have come to see in southern states' public buildings and in KKK, neo-Nazis, Tea Party, and GOP rallies. For those of you who need a more popular reference, that is the flag on top of that orange car known as the General Lee in the Dukes of Hazard. We have been told over and over that the flag is not about racism and that the Civil War was not about slavery as if repetition would make that true.
If the flag is not about white supremacy, why did the designer of the second confederate national flag, William T. Thompson, believe so? Thompson's design for a confederate national flag consisted of a white rectangle with a square containing the confederate army's battle flag in the top left corner. Thompson himself used to call this flag the "White Men's Flag". He was not shy about his beliefs and stated on the Daily Morning News of April 23, 1863 that, "As people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause." The white rectangle was meant to symbolize the supremacy of white men.
Some will claim that the voice of an influential reporter such as Thompson did not represent folks in the south. Check this out: in their declaration of secession from the Union, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia made abundantly clear that the intended and ongoing erosion of the "institution" of slavery had driven them away from the United States (CivilWar.Org). Some confederates may have not believed they were fighting for white supremacy, but their leaders and a majority of them did.
Flags of Treason
But let's forget for a minute that the designer of the confederate national flag openly stated that it stood for racial supremacy, or that in their declaration of war, southern states mentioned that the erosion of "slavery" had created a schism between North and South. What about the fact that the battle flag was carried by the rebel armies which were fighting against the democratically-elected government of the United States of America, that they were fighting against the U.S. Army and Navy? What about the fact that these states seceded after the old Democrat establishment (divided over the question of slavery) lost the 1860s' elections to Abraham Lincoln's Republicans? In fact, seven southern states seceded even before Lincoln's inauguration, not even giving a chance to the new president. Secession was nothing but outright treason.
There were divisions between North and South, but the only irreconcilable matter was that of the future of slavery. It was not an issue of state rights. We have heard that line often enough with regard to the teaching of creationism, abortion, gay rights, gender equality and the right to unionize, to name a few. But it always boils down to this: conservatives invoke "state rights" as a last-ditch effort to stop change and progress, and to oppose equality.
Conservatives argue that the confederate battle flag is not racist; that it is just about being proud of one's heritage. Funny, I have never seen a Black person flying it - I wonder why that is. Maybe that is the case because the flag is not about heritage but a symbol of white supremacy. It is embarrassing - strike that - it is shameful that the confederate flag is flown over public buildings and sites across the old and new south. The message is clear to the non-white population: "Look at that flag, we were not defeated, we continue to be your masters".
What to Do with the Flag
I'm glad that some of the biggest retailers and private corporations in the U.S. have denounced the hateful flag and are moving towards its removal from their stores and sites. It is, however, disheartening that the public sector is barely catching up. Do we need federal legislation prohibiting the use of the confederate flag in public buildings and sites or should we leave it to the former confederate states to recognize that the flag must go? I favor the former. The Union won the war but it has acted as if it lost it. The flag stands for discrimination so it should have no place in public buildings and grounds. Does that sound harsh? I think it is not harsh enough, but it is a good start.
Elected officials have been enabling, perhaps even promoting, unrepentant white supremacist feelings by their embrace of the confederate battle flag. Can you imagine any other instance in which such a hateful racist icon would be so openly displayed and celebrated? Can you imagine elected officials and political candidates marching and speaking at rallies amid a sea of symbols of racial oppression? This is how political figures and elected officials have been complicit in fomenting racial supremacy in the U.S. And that makes them responsible for the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Some may argue that removing the flag is but a cosmetic change that does little to address systemic racism and inequality. I disagree. Symbols are important. Prohibiting the use of the flag in public buildings and grounds sends the right message: this country belongs to all of us - equally. It is time to remove the flag from all public buildings and grounds and to shame (yes, shame) those who proudly fly and wear the flag of treason, hatred and racial supremacy. The time has come to correct the great historical lie concocted in the south about state rights. Their fight was about preserving a way of life based on slavery and nothing else.
Reflecting on why the cause of the Union was just, Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Infantry wrote: "The people have not Rebelled against the few, but the few have Rebelled against the people". The war is over but we continue to let the few fly the flags of treason, hatred and racial supremacy. Until when will we allow the few to terrorize the people and to openly fly their colors?
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