Since the terrible event in Charleston, SC where nine people were mercilessly targeted and killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a young racist and white supremacist, the flying of the Confederate battle flag at the state house in Columbia has once again taken center stage. Those who want it taken down say it's a symbol of racism, slavery, and oppression. Those who want it to remain argue that it is a symbol of Southern heritage and does not necessary endorse the South's slave-holding past. One thing is for certain-- it's in times like these that we are reminded that symbols are important and not to be taken lightly because those who embrace their symbols do so because they are connected in some way with their identity. In other words, the symbols we embrace say something about us individuals as well as the communities that endorse them.
The subject of this post has specifically to do with the Confederate flag controversy. I will write a second post on the importance of the symbolic in general and the complexities of history.
First, there have been those who support leaving the Confederate flag at the Columbia state house arguing that it's a matter of free expression. In actuality, that is not true. The State of South Carolina has no more of an obligation to fly the "stars and bars" than they do the banner of the South Carolina Gamecocks. The right to free expression is at stake when private citizens are prohibited from flying the Confederate flag on private property, something that has not happened. The freedom of expression argument is a red herring.
Second, the Confederate flag in question in Columbia has never been the flag of the Confederacy. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee. Moreover, it was designed particularly as a flag of the secession. It was not something in use prior to the Civil War. In other words, it is connected to the South's war to keep slavery and it simply cannot be extracted from that history. When governments use symbols, a statement of value and purpose is being made. No one flies a flag or a banner "just because." How can a flag, used only during War between the States and so intrinsically connected to legalized slavery simply be a symbol of a generic Southern heritage? When one reads the Declaration of Secession of the State of South Carolina in 1861 clearly slavery is the central issue. How can one separate any flag designed and fashioned in that context from the egregious institution of slavery and turn it into a docile symbol of a generic Southern heritage?
Third, the Southern states did not start flying Confederate flags at their statehouses until after the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down segregation laws. I seriously doubt that Southern heritage was the reason the decision was made in the 1950s to fly flags that signified white supremacy in the midst of legal decisions that no longer allowed for segregation. Is it any wonder that white supremacists today embrace the Confederate battle flag as one of their major symbols? When they do so, it is not a misuse of the flag, but rather it is used because they properly understand its meaning.
Thus, it seems to me that it is simply best to remove these flags from the state capitols where they fly and put them in museums and in other places where they belong in remembering, working through and understanding a difficult, bloody, and oppressive time in American history. The Confederate flags have their place in our history, for we cannot deny nor forget the worst parts of the past; but these flags have no place being flown where it can appear that today's governments still commend, at least implicitly, racist and racial policies.
If Southern heritage exists (being a Yankee, I cannot answer that question) and it is important, then clearly there must be other symbols that can be used to express that heritage; but let's do away with the symbols that ultimately cannot be separated from the moral evil of keeping fellow human beings in bondage, treating them like property.
However, when it comes to our symbols it is often very complicated. Most of our symbols are not without their problems. History and the human beings that make history are all too often quite a conflicted mess. More on that in the next post.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)