Editor’s Note: This appeared on the op-ed page of The Stamford Advocate in April 2000. We’d just been treated to Republican presidential hopefuls pandering for the “Rebel” vote in South Carolina by supporting the idea that the Confederate flag is a “state’s rights” issue. At least that’s the position the highly principled George W. Bush took during the campaign. (His primary opponent, John McCain, took a more ethical stance, but had the good sense to wait until he was out of the running to express it.)
For reasons I can’t quite figure out, over the years, this article has generated more responses to this site than any other I’ve posted. Here’s one that’s typical of the level of discourse among supporters of the Rebel flag: the SBC intellectual position. A far-more-incisive rebuttal came in the form of a song, which you can click here to listen to, if you have an MP3 player.
For a related article on the American flag, click here.
|The War Is Over
It’s Time to Strike Those Colors
Some lost causes so stubbornly refuse to die that reasonable people may wonder if there are ulterior motives for their perpetuation. Such is the case with the Confederate flag. On April 13, 2000, when the South Carolina Senate approved a compromise plan to change the location of the flag, this controversy was re-energized, and it’s now being debated in the state’s House of Representatives.
Defenders of the Southern Cross assert that it symbolizes pride in their Southern heritage, rather than slavery or racism. Meanwhile, African-Americans see the flag as a painful reminder of a time and a “Cause” that was, for them, the last gasp of a centuries-long holocaust of which no decent American should be proud.
Imagine the world’s reaction if a German state flew the swastika as a symbol of pride in its German heritage. Of course, Confederates can’t precisely be equated with Nazis, but the distinctions might be difficult to explain to the millions of Africans who lost their lives or their freedom and had their homelands and cultures destroyed to fuel an economy driven by the South’s “peculiar institution.” Rather than delineating the differences, it might be instructive to compare the legacies that the two flags represent.
South Carolina has been a state since the American Revolution, so it’s odd that some of its residents are passionately attached to a flag that officially represented its citizenry only from 1861 to 1865 and fixate on four years of a 225-year history to symbolize their legacy. It would make more sense to stay with the Palmetto flag, which has commemorated the state’s role in the War for Independence since 1775. After all, modern Germans do not advocate that the swastika, which adorned German flagpoles for a relatively brief period, represent their country’s long and often-distinguished history.
Supporters argue that the Confederate flag honors brave men, such as Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, who gave their lives for The Cause, but this argument is specious for several reasons. To begin with, the Civil War ended 135 years ago, so almost no one now living has ever even met anyone who can remember it. At least the German soldiers who died in World War II gave their lives within recent memory, but this wouldn’t make it any more palatable if their children and grandchildren honored that sacrifice by draping their headstones with the swastika.
As is the case with valiant dead of the Wehrmacht, the Rebels who laid down their lives were on the wrong side of history. Although it’s not always true, sometimes wars are fought between “the good guys” and “the bad guys.” Even in our age of moral relativism, few would make the case that the cause of freeing the slaves and The Cause of maintaining the right to own another human being are moral equivalents. The status of the slaves was not the sole motivating factor for the Civil War; however, without the issue of slavery, it’s doubtful 600,000 Americans would have died in that tragic endeavor.
Robert E. Lee was a heroic figure, a brilliant general and a Southern gentleman, but would the course of American history have been improved if he had triumphed at Gettysburg in 1863? Most patriotic Americans would not view the Balkanization of the American continent into slave and free states that a Rebel victory would have precipitated as a positive development. Lee’s victory would likely have presaged the sort of disaster (albeit of a lesser magnitude) that would have occurred had Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, another valiant warrior, triumphed over the Allies in North Africa.
Imagine a Europe in which Nazism had triumphed. How many more innocent millions would have died under Hitler’s regime? Now, imagine a North America in which the Confederate states had won their independence. When would slavery have ended? In 1861, Czarist Russia freed the serfs; however, in that same year, 11 states united under the Southern Cross, committed to a far more dehumanizing system. The Confederates were unashamed to find themselves the last industrialized entity boasting state-sanctioned human bondage. At the same time, the region’s largest and most powerful religious denomination, the Southern Baptists, owed its very existence to the schism between those who considered slavery Biblically ordained and their Christian brethren in the Abolitionist camp.
It’s not farfetched to imagine slavery remaining the law of the land in the Confederacy well into the 20th century. Little in the actions of the Southern states during the Civil Rights era indicates that, left to their own devices, they would have been amenable to divesting themselves of the institution. It took the weight of the Federal government to end segregation and force the beginnings of equality down the throats of Southerners, who clung like grim death to the euphemistic legacy of “states’ rights.” And, even if the slaves had been freed, what would their status have been? Again, the Southern Baptists exerted their considerable power to oppose integration and civil rights at every turn, portraying such efforts as contrary to fundamental and fundamentalist Biblical principles. Absent external pressure, one can only wonder how willing states such as Alabama and Mississippi would have been to grant equality to their minorities.
Historical hypothesizing aside, there’s a more practical reason the flag should come down — the Rebels lost the war! Right or wrong, the Confederate states were compelled back into the United States, where they remain, so the banner of that failed, anti-American revolution cannot be a patriotic symbol for Americans. When confronted with the notion that the outcome of the Civil War could never be accepted as final, General Lee wisely counseled, “Abandon your animosities, and make your sons Americans.”
What attraction to futility causes the veneration of an event that killed off a generation of young men and fueled decades of hatred? When Germans ponder the fruits of World War II — the ravaged cities, the millions of graves polluting the landscape, the stain in the history books that is Nazism and the disdain of their European neighbors — it’s unlikely that most do so with fond nostalgia.
Finally, if the Confederate flag symbolizes regional pride and sentimentality for a bygone era, why do so many pickup trucks in rural New England sport the Southern Cross? These drivers cannot all be expatriates from below the Mason-Dixon line, showing pride in their heritage. More probably, they’re making some other sort of statement. When an ostensibly patriotic American who’s never been anywhere near Berlin wears a swastika tattoo or a Hitler T-shirt, it’s no mystery what such a display is meant to convey. Being neither black, nor Jewish, I can’t claim to feel what they feel when confronted with these icons; however, it’s not hard to imagine why such displays make them feel dishonored and disrespected, if not intimidated.
I’m not in favor of reparations for crimes committed by long-dead sinners against equally long-dead victims. Guilt over the misdeeds of one’s ancestors is pointless, but it’s not too much to ask that we put away the symbols of those wrongs and stop using them to hurt the descendants of those victims.
What is the displeasure of a few Rebel sympathizers denied the sight of an obsolete flag waving over their capitol when measured against the pain being caused by such a display? And what does it say about the supporters of this flag that they cling to it so stubbornly?
In recent years, even the Southern Baptists have finally apologized for their support of slavery and their opposition to civil rights. In parts of the South, the social progress of the 20th century moved at a snail’s pace. The region’s former Rebels should now be ready to leave the 19th century behind and make the great leap into the 21st.
Click here to read a rebuttal of sorts.
Click here for a stars-and-bars musical interlude.
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