Before you read this, let me apologize for this being yet another post about the Confederate flag in the midst of literally millions of others. The issue of waving the Confederate flag has recently garnered no shortage of controversy, mainly because it was displayed by Dylann Roof, the individual who killed 9 black congregation members at an historic church in Charleston, SC. In the aftermath, the flag was removed from the South Carolina state capitol, a move supported by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. It now appears that Alabama is following suit.
The issue has inspired impassioned arguments from people on all sides of the issue. Those who support removing the flag believe it is primarily a symbol of racism and the Confederacy’s desire to maintain institutionalized slavery, while those who oppose dismantlement insist that it is nothing more than a symbol of Southern heritage and pride. While I certainly do not believe it is universally symbolic of racism, for those for whom the length of this post means tl;dr, I will summarily say that due to its baggage, the Confederate battle flag should not be flown on buildings meant for official government functions, and while people and organizations absolutely should have the right to fly the flag on their own private property and person, they should consider the effect being had by the symbol.
Before I delve into my reasoning behind this, allow me to say that I think some of the anti-Confederate flag crowd’s solutions have been absolutely absurd. Technological corporate giant Apple recently stopped selling all Civil War video games depicting the Confederate flag, and there was consideration given in Congress to banning the flag from Federal cemeteries. Moves like this are outrageous, and frankly serve more to blot out history than to bring about reconciliation. The fact that such actions are being considered is downright Orwellian, and demonstrates a problem plaguing American politics, particularly the left end of the political spectrum: we prefer extreme solutions over thoughtful ones, and we prefer to simply not have to deal uncomfortable feelings caused by such symbols. In the two contexts I mentioned above, the display of that flag is DEscriptive, rather than PREscriptive, and removing them simply pretends that historical realities did not exist. Such solutions are extreme, and idiotic. Additionally, while I will sound here like a Fox News-toting conservative ranting about “liberal elites”, the fact is that for a lot of people who display it, they really don’t necessarily mean it in a directly racist way, and may display it more due to fond memories associated with it in one’s family or growing up years, and as a matter of personal rebellion against (perceived) authoritarianism. It is genuinely frustrating how many battle flag opponents don’t always seem to understand this, and sometimes become rather condescending towards those who fly it, even though the flag’s associations are something that they need to be aware of, and in many cases may be willfully ignorant.
With these caveats made, I have to say I find display of this flag to be rather distasteful, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. In the first place, while other reasons for the Civil War have been cited, such as trade disputes and states’ rights as a general principle, an analysis of the Confederates’ own reasons given indicates that, in general, the need to preserve the institution of slavery for their economic interests was front and center for why they seceded. Now, while this flag was never the official flag of the Confederate government, it was used as their unofficial battle emblem. And the Confederate army was there to carry out the official policy of its government (as is the case with all national armies), meaning that they were in effect fighting for the preservation of slavery, whether this was the conscious reason of each individual Confederate soldier or not. Although, it should also be pointed out that for many poor white Southerners, slavery was a comfort because it ensured that they were not truly at the bottom of the caste system. The South of course lost the war and slavery was abolished. Up until around the 1940s and 50s, the flag was generally only displayed at Confederate gravesites and at funerals for Confederate veterans. However, in the 1950s, when the Civil Rights movement began to slowly gain traction, it was adopted as the symbol of the Dixiecrat Party, a party founded primarily to preserve racial segregation. Consider also the thoughts of Lee Atwater, a Republic strategist who did a lot of work in South Carolina, as mentioned in this article:
In 1988, Lee Atwater, the tactician of racial politics in a very different Republican Party, gave me a tour of the State House at Columbia, South Carolina. I was there as a reporter for the Washington Post. Standing in the rotunda under the dome he showed off the monumental statute of John C. Calhoun, godfather of secession, and then pointed out the window to the Confederate flag. It had been flying there since 1962, an emblem of resistance to the civil rights movement.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’” Atwater had explained to the political scientist Alexanders Lamis back in 1981. “By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes …”
Atwater wrote some words in my notebook—“establishment” and “populism”—and explained how he used a racially coded “populism” against the “establishment” of liberal government. This was “populism” as old as Ben Tillman’s Red Shirts militia that violently overthrew Reconstruction and imposed Jim Crow. (A large statue of the racist crusader Tillman, who became governor and senator, is planted in front of the State House.)
It becomes increasingly clear that while not always overtly symbolic of racist causes, it almost universally is symbolic of a brand of populism largely tailored towards middle and working class whites, and many of those ideas will, in some way or another, foster a society that helps keep blacks at bay. While I have no doubt that many supporters of this populism do not often think of it in racial terms, it is easy to understand why, for millions of black people, seeing that flag carries emotional weight that views it very negatively, as it was the flag flown by the army that fought for a government founded on the principle of preserving slavery, then adopted by a party dedicated to preserving Jim Crow, and to this day used by racist individuals, including at Ku Klux Klan events.
We must not delude ourselves into thinking that removal of the flag will eliminate racism. But we must understand that, in our country’s healing process from a legacy of abhorrent racism, certain symbols can make that healing more difficult, and when it is flown at official government sites, it serves as a reminder that that government has in the past supported highly racist policies, and that some feel it still does. On an unrelated note, assuming for the sake of argument that it in fact has NO relation to racism, it nonetheless does symbolize rebellion against the American government, which makes it all the more ridiculous to fly at official state government sites. And while private individuals and organizations displaying that flag on their houses, yards, cars, etc. is unquestionably protected by the 1st Amendment, they must ask the question, “Should I really do this?” Who is being benefitted by it? How does it show the love of Christ, particularly to black Americans? What will you be losing if you were to stop displaying it? As Paul writes in I Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.”
This is a conversation we must be having in our nation. We must all pray that we can have that conversation with utmost love, patience, kindness, and gentleness.