Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Down with the Confederate Flag

The historical baggage is too heavy to continue carrying
shutterstock_226528156 copy

On several occasions in the past, I have defended the display of the Confederate battle flag. I have never displayed it myself, and would not display it. I believe the Southern cause in the Civil War was wrong, and I know that the Confederate flag’s display during the Civil Rights Era was a sign of racist resistance. Yet I have known white Southerners who really do consider the flag to be a symbol of Southern heritage, culture, and identity, and who mean nothing racist by it. On this blog, I have tried to tell people that not every display of the Confederate flag is meant as an expression of racism. I still think that’s true.

After the South Carolina massacre, I thought about the only person I personally know  who displays the Confederate flag. I believe him to be a genuine racist, based on things he has said. A visiting black friend of mine from New Orleans, driving around our area, saw the flag on the way to our house, and I was embarrassed by it. I didn’t want him to think that we were all like that white racist.

Well, what if I did not have good reason to believe that the Flag Man was racist? What if he was just a Civil War buff, and what if I knew that that’s all he was, and that he meant nothing racist by the display of the Confederate flag? Would I still have been embarrassed in front of my black New Orleans friend, and would I still have felt obliged to distance myself from the flag’s display, so my friend wouldn’t think the guy who lives in our parish represents me?

Yes, I would have. Even if I knew for a fact that the man’s display of the Confederate flag was not meant to symbolize racism, I still would have been troubled that the appearance of such would have offended my black friend. Yesterday, all that came to mind again, and I concluded that the Confederate flag has become impossible for most people to see as symbolizing anything other than white supremacy. Therefore, it cannot be redeemed. Therefore it should be retired from public display, except in clearly historical settings (e.g., museums, Civil War cemeteries, historical re-enactments), and then only in a limited way.

In South Carolina, by act of the state legislature, the Confederate battle flag flies over a Confederate War Memorial on the state Capitol grounds. I can see how some white Southerners genuinely regard the flag and its display as nothing more than honoring the Confederate dead, something that is noble even as the cause for which those soldiers died is not. I think about the one ancestor I know of who fought for the Confederacy. He was a poor country farmer, and almost certainly didn’t carry in his head the idea that he was fighting to preserve slavery (though he ultimately was); chances are he only thought that he was fighting for the people of his state, defending his land against invaders. He really did fight bravely, records show. I cannot and will not be ashamed of that man’s battlefield courage, though I wish he had not devoted his courage to the Confederate cause — which was not solely about maintaining slavery, but which undeniably included that evil end.

The widespread use of the Confederate battle flag during the Civil Rights era, to defend white supremacy, removed the benefit of the doubt that might have been extended to those displaying the flag in memory of the war dead. In other words, modern white supremacists robbed the flag, as a symbol, of a plausible claim of innocence. True, Dylann Roof did not display the Confederate battle flag in his rampage inside the church, but it can’t be denied that the Dylann Roofs of the Civil Rights era, and their fellow travelers, did openly associate that flag with their cause. In light of what just happened in Charleston, and considering things from the point of view of black Southerners, I believe that the Confederate battle flag is simply too tainted as a symbol to be displayed in good conscience anymore.

Russell Moore, a native Mississippian and a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, gets it:

The Confederate battle flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights. The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.

That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African American brothers and sisters.

Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them. In Christ, we were slaves in Egypt — and as part of the Body of Christ we were all slaves too in Mississippi. Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors.

Let’s take down that flag.

I agree. I am proud to be a Southerner, and do not, and will not, apologize for my Southernness. I get defensive about it on this blog from time to time because I can’t abide non-Southerners using the South’s racist past as a scapegoat that allows them to safely ignore their own region’s racism, or that gives them the moral satisfaction of reducing all of Southern history and culture to bigotry. I will fight back against that sort of thing.

And I will do so even though I am ashamed of what my white Southern ancestors did to black Southerners, both during slavery and in its aftermath. It was evil, and it must be repented of. Russell Moore says:

As those in Christ, this descendant of Confederate veterans has more in common with a Nigerian Christian than I do with a non-Christian white Mississippian who knows the right use of “y’all” and how to make sweet tea.

Yes, this descendant of  t least one Confederate veteran does too. I can scarcely imagine the pain that black folks in Charleston suffer these days as they mourn the dead of the Mother Emanuel AME church, knowing that the banner under which their ancestors were enslaved, and that was flown in the twentieth century in defense of white supremacy — a defense that included terrorist killings of their own people — continues to fly over public space in South Carolina. It can’t be removed from the state Capitol grounds without an act of the legislature. 

I hope the South Carolina legislature will act, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it would be an act of solidarity with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who died at the hands of the white supremacist Dylann Roof. To take down the flag is not a sign of disrespect to the South, but a recognition that “the South” includes all Southerners, including black men and women. The flag is a symbol of our deepest and ugliest division. It’s time for us to leave that heavy baggage behind.

UPDATE: Here is David French’s case for keeping the Confederate flag. I don’t agree with him, but it’s an argument worth considering, in part because it highlights that there are people who are not racist who nevertheless honor the flag. I used to agree with this argument, and I recognize its integrity. But I think it’s, well, a lost cause. Excerpt:

It’s simply undeniable that the Confederate battle flag is a painful symbol to our African-American fellow citizens, especially given its recent history as a chosen totem of segregationists. So it’s critical to respond to the argument in good faith. And just as the history of the Civil War is personal to me, so is America’s present racial reality. As I’ve mentioned before, my youngest daughter is quite literally African-American (born in Ethiopia and now as American as apple pie), and when she’s a little bit older, we’ll no doubt have many tough conversations about history and race. If the goal of our shared civic experience was the avoidance of pain, then we’d take down that flag. But that’s of course not the goal. Rather, we use history to understand our nation in all its complexity — acknowledging uncomfortable realities and learning difficult truths. For white southerners — especially those with deep roots in the South — those difficult truths are presented front and center throughout our lives. Yes, the South seceded in large part to preserve slavery. Yes, had the South prevailed, slavery not only would have been preserved for the indefinite future, it may have even spread to new nations and territories. And no, while some southerners were kinder than others, there was nothing “humane” about the fundamental institution of slavery itself. As Coates and others have often and eloquently explained, it was a system built on plunder and pain. But there are other difficult truths. Among them, when the war began, it was not explicitly a war to end slavery. Indeed, had the Union quickly accomplished its war aims, slavery would have endured, at least for a time. When hundreds of thousands of southern men took up arms (most of them non-slave-owning), many of them fought with the explicit belief that they were standing in the shoes of the Founding Fathers, men who’d exercised their own right of self-determination to separate from the mother Country. Others simply saw an invading army marching into their state — into their towns and across their farms — and chose to resist. And no one can doubt their valor. Both sides displayed breathtaking courage, but the South poured itself into the fight to an extent the modern American mind simply can’t comprehend. If you extrapolated Southern losses into our current American population, the war would cost the lives of a staggering 9 million men, with at least an equivalent number injured. To understand the impact of that human loss, I’d urge you to read Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering — a book that explores the psychological impact of omnipresent, mass-scale death on southern culture.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now