Rejecting the Confederate battle flag

[This Op-Ed appeared in the Carrol County Times March 1, 2018]

Recently, several Carroll countians have expressed disagreement with Superintendent Stephen Guthrie’s decision to ban the familiar Confederate battle flag from Carroll County Public Schools.

Those who disagree with this decision often refer to “the history of this country,” but they rarely sound as if they have talked to historians, or at least discussed their views with a handful of African-American friends who have had experiences with the flag, before holding forth.

The flag at issue was one of several battle flags used by Confederate forces, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in particular, during the Civil War (1861-1865). It is defended by some today as a symbol of the South, the Confederacy, the “Lost Cause,” and Americanism.

However, today this flag is more strongly associated — in the minds of many white and most nonwhite Americans — not with patriotism, but with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. This tie between the flag and racism was formed in two main waves of partisan public opinion.

The first wave happened after the Civil War, in reaction to emancipation, and gained strength after the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877. From then until World War II, the white South built a narrative that romanticized its culture and rationalized its past role in slavery. During this same period, the black South suffered oppression from a deliberate continuation of the racial bullying common during slavery, codified into Jim Crow laws in the Southern states. These laws provided a model for the savage racial codes later adopted by Nazi Germany (1933-1945) and by Apartheid South Africa (1948-1994). The rise of the Jim Crow system throughout the South coincided with the rise of lynching, as black lives — not being for sale any more — lost whatever value to white racists that they might once have had. The Ku Klux Klan was the most visible organization promoting rejection of the rights African-Americans had won under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The symbol for both the Klan and for the broader wave of opinion commemorating the greatness of Southern white culture, was the battle flag that we are still arguing about.

The second wave tying the battle flag to racism came in reaction to the emergence of serious Civil Rights proposals and campaign planks in the 1940s, and in effect this wave is still going on. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat push for the Presidency, and subsequent white reactions against the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, were — and are — carried out under the banner of the battle flag. The involvement of the Klan in this violence is well known to historians. Birmingham, Alabama was known as “Bombingham,” and lost its future as the South’s great city to Atlanta, which advertised itself as too busy to hate. Many law enforcement officers were also Klan members, and did little to restrain white mobs who attacked Dr. King’s nonviolent demonstrators.

In sum, the battle flag, since the Civil War, has been associated with “keeping the blacks down” through practices like segregated public facilities, restrictions on voting, substandard education, red-lining in housing, discrimination in employment, violent intimidation, racially skewed mass incarceration, and even inhumane medical research. Around the world, the flag has become a reminder of America’s faults. Fans of the flag are likely to minimize the importance of these issues (no big deal, get over it, we’re past that now, who cares?), but in so doing they keep the issues alive. Of course, today’s fans of the flag did not suffer as victims of these practices, whatever their other forms of suffering may be.

Is it any wonder that people who understand this history object to the public display of the battle flag?

To make matters worse, public display of the flag often occurs as an “in-your-face” display of disrespect by people who are ignorant of both this history and the people they are tormenting. These displays are motivated by meanness, but then are often excused as “just having fun.” Such a stance does not qualify as a reasoned position on history. To most who witness them, displays of the battle flag call to mind the violence of racist attacks on peaceful abolitionists, emancipators, and civil rights advocates throughout American history. These displays evoke disgust, horror and pity in most who see them, regardless of the cover story offered.

Displaying the battle flag is distracting, anxiety-producing, and disruptive in learning situations where focused attention and emotional calm are needed. That is why it is right and proper to prohibit display of the flag at schools, as are other sources of disruption.

I can understand the impulse to defend symbols that are familiar, and that have emotional meaning for a person. However, human beings have learned and relearned the meanings of symbols before; it can be done. At one time, the battle flag itself was primarily a symbol belonging to Confederate soldiers, meant to identify them on the battlefield to avoid being fired upon by their own comrades. But — largely under the influence of the Klan and its friends — that meaning was transformed over time into a sinister symbol of white terrorism. America should reject it, as the German people rejected the swastika.

White South Africans also came to terms with the end of Apartheid in 1994, and it was advantageous for them to do so. Throughout the past century, the world has repeatedly found that ending segregation and mitigating racism soon benefits everyone economically (due to the easing of restrictions on customers, commerce and trade) and socially (due to the wider availability and sharing of knowledge, skills and forms of expression).

I hope that those who are still attached to the Confederate battle flag will come to appreciate that this symbol deeply wounds their fellow Americans. It also does no credit either to nostalgia for days gone by or to the culture of the South. Clinging to this symbol hurts all of us. With respect, I ask my fellow citizens to find higher and more honorable symbols of our American identity.

The writer is a member of the Education That is Multicultural Council and co-author, with the late Ira G. Zepp Jr., of “Nonviolence: Origins and Outcomes.” He writes from Uniontown.