The debate about symbols of the Confederacy present in government-sponsored memorials and other spaces has been erupting, on and off, since the Civil War. The issue came into focus a few years ago, with southern state flags containing Confederate symbolism. Local governments have been acting and debating on various statues and memorials ever since.
Now, in August of 2017, the nation is embroiled in the debate about racism, violence and freedom of expression again, this time after protest conflicts in Charlottesville, Virginia, that killed Heather Heyer, after a “Unite the Right” activist allegedly intentionally drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist activists. State police Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, were killed in a related helicopter crash.
It was all over the removal of a Confederate memorial. There are upward of 1,000 Confederate memorials in the United States, including some in Union states, and a significant number in government-sponsored public locations. A few have been coming down in the wake of Charlottesville. We’ll be writing and talking more on this issue in coming days and weeks. What follows is an editorial we offered after the 2015 uproar over the Confederate flag removal in South Carolina.
A few months back, amid our current hand-wringing about police shootings of African American crime suspects in St. Louis, Baltimore, and, later, Cincinnati, we had a national soul-searching about the Confederate battle flag. The cold-blooded murder of a group of Christians in Charleston, South Carolina, during their Bible-study faith-sharing, by a man seen on YouTube wielding the Confederate battle flag, was a wake-up call. Why was that racist flag being displayed across our land, including some officially sanctioned locations?
When the Confederate battle flag finally was lowered from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina, in July, a lot of us felt the story was over. By then, of course, Walmart and other national chains had scrambled to remove Warner Bros.’ rebel-flag-clad Dukes of Hazzard toy cars from their culture forming kids’ toy shelves.
But many Southerners and others know better. The Confederate battle flag, and other symbols of the Confederacy, have been potent symbols of racism, revived in recent history, that will not go away so easily.
Symbol of Racism
Most of us are unaware how the rebel flag came back into vogue over the past half century. It was resurrected by the antiheroes of the civil-rights movement. Men whose names are fading from memory—Alabama Governor George Wallace, Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond—stood bitterly opposed to equal rights for African Americans, and used the rebel flag as a symbol of their opposition.
But this is ancient history, right?
Truth be told, there’s nothing ancient about it. The flag, of course, in South Carolina entered the national debate again last summer. But when it was removed from the statehouse grounds, the problem did not disappear. Travel through the southern United States with a black host, as this writer has, and you will see and hear how the potent message of Confederate symbols persists, sprinkled throughout the land.
Courthouse squares and other public institutions glorify antiheroes of the Southern secession movement, fought in the name of white pride, no matter how you dress it up. Slavery was the foundation of the Southern economy. States’ rights were its protector. The flag and the statues are its memory. The most visible are remnants of the battle flag in the state flags of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Georgia removed the battle-flag imagery in 2001, but replaced it with the lesser-known Stars and Bars, official flag of the Confederacy. What an empty move.
Glorified symbols of the Confederacy promote the suppression of blacks. Period.
It’s Time to Go
Removing the flag in South Carolina, taking the offensive toys out of Walmart, Sears, and elsewhere: these are good steps in our national reawakening to the ongoing potency of racism. But let’s not stop there. We all know, after all, that symbols are far more than decoration. They tell us something about ourselves.
They affirm what we believe.
It’s well past time that we relegate the symbols of state-sanctioned racism to history museums and remove them from public, political potency. We wouldn’t put up with the Nazi flag. We shouldn’t put up with the Confederate one, either.