The Confederate Flag: The Beginning of the End?


confederate flag SCOh my gosh, if I don’t hurry up and write this post, it will be outdated before I publish it.

I’m watching Southern politicians practically elbowing one another in their haste to leap over the fence or off the fence, thus ensuring that they’re on the record as having been on the right side of history. Only just in time, but hey, at this point, who’s counting hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries?

And yet, most of the politicians who are now claiming that the confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina state capitol grounds are nevertheless bending over backwards not to insult the many lovers of said flag.

Yes, they say, for this young man the confederate flag was a symbol of racial hatred, but for most folks here it’s just a symbol of their heritage, their history and they’re proud of their heritage. The civil war was a significant event and it should not be forgotten. And so they keep flying the confederate flag.

Think about this for a minute.

The confederates were fighting to leave the United States because they were not able to keep their states’ rights within the USA. And by states’ rights, they meant the right to have slaves.  They are so proud of this period in history  that a century and a half later they still identify with the confederate flag? But they’re not racist?

Yeah, right.

Imagine if Germans insisted on still flying the swastika, from the gables of houses, from the capitol, everywhere in Germany. Imagine them claiming that they are definitely not nazis; it’s just that the Nazi years were a significant part of German history; their parents fought for Germany during World War Two; their parents were guards in concentration camps and they are proud of that heritage. But they’re not nazis and they’re not antisemitic.

Who in their right mind would believe that? Who in their right mind would think for even a second that that would fool anyone? It would be crystal clear that the re-education of the Germans had been completely ineffective. So either the lovers of the confederate flag are rabid racists who want to keep the idea of a slave-owning South alive, or they’re incredibly uneducated, on this subject, anyway.

Maybe the removal of the confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol should be accompanied by some serious re-education.

Unless I’m wrong. If everyone in the South–well, everyone except the unapologetic white supremacists–is now for the first time really seriously acknowledging that the confederate flag is a racist symbol, then the next step is that the flag disappears completely–again, except on the property of openly white supremacists.

We’ll see. This is a first, very careful baby step, and as such it’s exciting.

8 responses to “The Confederate Flag: The Beginning of the End?

  1. Pingback: Charleston Church Massacre | Flickr Comments

  2. The USA is beginning to get scarier and scarier, honestly!

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  3. I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree in this one. I apologize already for my lenghty comment….

    Not being *from* the South but from the Netherlands, just like you, I ended up in the South, in Virginia, where they are proud of their heritage and thus the Southern Flag. It has nothing to do with racism or racial hatred for a lot of the good people of Virginia and, dare I say it, the South in general. Heck, my own family here is a racial mix of white, black, and Asian and they all fly the Confederate Flag.

    I do understand your comparison to the Nazi Swastika, but think about this for a minute.

    The Nazis tried to exterminate a whole race during World War II, blaming them for all the things that were wrong in the world. Did that happen during the Civil War? Did the Southern States try to exterminate a whole race during that time? No, they didn’t. They tried to defend their way of living, good or bad as it may have been. But don’t forget that there were slaves in the Northern States too: Rhode Island got rich on the slave trade and even sent their slaves to fight in their place during the Civil War.

    But does the North even acknowledge their slaving (holding and selling) era and their own involvement in this? Of course they don’t!

    I like to argue that this is a national problem, not only a problem of the Southern States.

    Joanne Pope Melish wrote a book, “Disowning Slavery,” where she argues that the North didn’t simply forget that it ever had slaves. She makes a forceful case for a deliberate re-writing of the region’s past, in the early 1800s. By the 1850s, Melish writes, “New England had become a region whose history had been re-visioned by whites as a triumphant narrative of free, white labor.” And she adds that this “narrative of a historically free, white New England also advanced antebellum New England nationalism by supporting the region’s claims to a superior moral identity that could be
    contrasted effectively with the ‘Jacobinism’ of a slave-holding, ‘negroized’ South.”[-Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England 1780-1860, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998, pp. 222-223-]

    The demonizing adjective is one she borrows from Daniel Webster, who used it in the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830 and the word is well-chosen. Webster’s “Second Reply,” given in January 1830 during his debate with Robert Young Hayne of South Carolina — the most famous speech in a famous clash of North and South — shows the master orator of his time at the peak of his powers. In these speeches Webster compellingly turned New England sectional values into the supreme national values, while at the same time playing on the racist fears of the average Northerner, who loathed slavery less for its inherent injustice and more because it flooded the country with blacks.

    Webster “articulated a clear and compelling vision of an American nation made up of the union of northern and western states, bonded by an interpretation of the origin and meaning of the union and the U.S. Constitution and reflecting the core values of New England political culture and history. Coded implicitly among those essential values were claims to
    historical freedom and whiteness, against which Webster could effectively contrast a South isolated by its historical commitment to slavery. Such an interpretation, appealing as it did to the widespread desire among northern states outside New England to eradicate their black populations and achieve a ‘whiteness’ like that of New England, could rally and solidify northern opposition to Slave Power.”[Melish-page 230]

    In the speech, Webster, like Pilate, washes his hands of anything to do with American slavery. “The domestic slavery of the Southern States I leave where I find it, — in the hands of their own governments. It is their affair, not mine.” This allows him to keep within the frame of the Constitution, and at the same time cleverly disavow more than a century and a half of New England slavery and slave-trading, which had financed the first families and institutions of his home district.

    Having set controls on their black residents (in some Northern States, after emancipation, black people were legally allowed to vote, marry whites, file lawsuits, or sit on juries. In most, they were not. But even where the right was extended by law, often the white majority did not allow it to happen), the Northern states busied themselves in passing laws to make sure no more black people moved within their boundaries. These were not elitist actions. The pressure for total exclusion came from the working class whites, struggling for a little bargaining power with the shop owners and
    fearful of inexpensive black competition that could drive down wages. New Jersey had prohibited black people from entering the state to settle, because “sound public policy requires that importation be prohibited in order that white labor may be protected.” Connecticut’s legislature had declared that it did so because “the increase of freed slaves is injurious
    to the poor.”

    Who is prejudiced here now? Can it all be blamed on the Southern States? In my humble opinion, I don’t think so.

    History books and different censuses tell us that 94% of the slaves lived below the Mason-Dixon Line. They concentrated in the tobacco-growing region in the Chesapeake basin and in the rice-growing along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Having solved its slavery problem by a very gradual emancipation, and by aggressively proscribing the rights of its free black minority, the North was content.

    But -and don’t forget this- their ships continued to carry slaves to Southern ports, and slave-grown cotton to Europe. The North reaped the profits of the Southern plantations, and the
    federal government collected the tariffs. Any further effort made in the North toward resolving the slavery issue generally went into the pipe-dream of colonization and to making sure Southern black people stayed there, or at least did not come north, because they weren’t wanted there either.

    As far back as 1717, citizens of New London, Connecticut, in a town meeting voted their objection to free black people living in the town or owning land anywhere in the colony. That year, the colonial assembly passed a law in accordance with this sentiment, prohibiting free black people or mulattoes from residing in any town in the colony. It also forbid them to buy land or go into business without the consent of the town. The provisions were retroactive, so that if any black person had managed to buy land, the deed was rendered void, and a black resident of a town, however long he had been there, was now subject to prosecution at the discretion of the selectmen. Massachusetts in 1788 prescribed flogging for
    non-resident black person who stayed more than two months. Less than four months after its Congressmen voted against the restrictions on black settlement in the Missouri Compromise, Massachusetts set up a legislative committee to investigate such legislation for its own sake. From 1813 to 1852, Pennsylvania was constantly debating exclusion, under pressure of petitions from the counties along the Mason-Dixon Line.

    Like the black codes of the South and Midwest in the 19th century, enforcement of Northern race laws was selective, and their real value lay in harassment and discouragement of further settlement, and in being a constant reminder to free black people that their existence was precarious and dependent on white toleration. Across the North, such laws were the sword hung above the heads of a whole black population: step out of line, make one false move, and you could be shipped out, or sold into slavery. You wouldn’t have the right to face your (white) accuser in court (as you would in, say, antebellum Louisiana). These laws still are on the books in some (Northern!) States; their defenders point out that they are rarely invoked, but that does not make their potential targets feel safer living under them.

    The new states that entered the union in the North after the end of slavery were just as concerned with their racial purity as the old ones. To do so, they turned to an old practice in the North: the exclusion law. Slaves could not be brought into the Northwest Territories, under the ordinance of 1787, but slaves already there were to continue in bondage. Once States began to emerge from the old territories, most of them explicitly barred black people or permitted them only if they could prove their freedom and post bond. Ohio offered the first example, and those that followed her into the union followed her lead on race.

    Slavery was abolished in Ohio by the State’s original Constitution (1802). But at the same time, Ohio, with slave-state Kentucky across the river, aggressively barred black immigration. When Virginian John Randolph’s 518 slaves were emancipated and a plan was hatched to settle them in southern Ohio, the population rose up in indignation. An Ohio congressman warned that if the attempt were made, “…the banks of the Ohio … would be lined with men with muskets on their shoulders to keep off the emancipated slaves…”[Congressional Globe, 30 Cong. 1 Sess., appendix, p.727.] Even
    the abolitionists in this region pitched their appeal, in part, to the desire for a homogenous (white) states.

    Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, all the new territories were the same, trying to keep the black Americans out.

    When the Civil War ended, 19 of 24 Northern States did not allow black people to vote. Nowhere did they serve on juries. They could not give testimony in 10 states, and were prevented from assembling in two. Several Western States had prohibited free black people from entering the State. Black people who entered Illinois and stayed more than 10 days were guilty of “high misdemeanor.” Even those that didn’t exclude black people debated doing so and had discriminatory ordinances on the local level.

    So, is it all in the Southern States and can a Confederate Flag be held accountable for the actions of insane people? Again, I don’t think so.

    Since moving to the US I have never seen so much discrimination and, dare I say it, a lot of the discrimination comes from certain people/groups who keep discriminating themselves and then point the finger at others shouting “discrimination!” or “racist!”

    Do I condemn what happened in Charleston? I most definitely do! Do I raise my eyebrows at how (some of) the press tries to “humanize” the shooter instead of calling him for what he is: a terrorist? Yes, I do! But why is it that only white people can be racist?

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    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      Well, that is an almost overwhelming amount of information. No, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the North was all good. But the North did want to abolish slavery. Sure, that didn’t end racial problems, of course not. But it was a start. I also know that the Civil War was a war fought by the poor. Rich slave owners paid poor whites to fight in their place, and those whites didn’t have slaves. Nevertheless, for whatever number of reasons people in the North fought in the Civil War, the South was fighting it mainly so the rich plantation owners could keep their slaves.
      No, the South didn’t try to exterminate a whole people like the Nazis did. They enslaved, exploited, abused, raped a whole people for about two centuries. Like you said, the South fought to protect their way of living. That way was a handful of large plantation owners running things and keeping slavery. Pointing to others and saying that what they did wasn’t all pretty either doesn’t change this fact, and that that’s what the flag represents. Again, it might well be that many Southerners don’t see it like that, purely because they don’t know why the South fought in the Civil War. In that case it should be explained to them. And, no, whites aren’t the only ones who can be racist. Blacks can be racist as well. And considering America’s history, who has more reason for such a chip on their shoulder? How much does black racism affect you? Did it determine your place in society from birth, did it determine what chance you had to get an education and improve yourself? If a group of black people were trying to get people riled up because the president was white, would you take it seriously? Would you need to?
      Yes, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Thanks for the comment, though, because I think I’ll come back to some of the issues in a separate post.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What seems to be overlooked in all of this discussion is that the flag represents not just a struggle to own slaves, guised under “states rights” but open rebellion and, in fact, treason, against the United States. It was that same banner that incited the assassination of Lincoln, and ultimately can be blamed for the deaths of over 640,000 soldiers alone – civilian casualties never really seem to be tallied. That amounted to about 6% of the population of the entire nation at the time. That looks like an extermination attempt to me – not that I lay all of that at the feet of the south, but that the root cause cycles back to the right to hold humans in bondage.

    It is true that the north has an inglorious history of slave trading and slave holding as well, but when the wrongs of slavery finally dawned on someone, it was in the north. To say that this did not affect the northern economy and was therefore an attack on the agrarian south is not exactly true. But once it happened in the north, the economy adjusted, just as it did in the south once it had to do.

    The glorious history that people cling to by honoring the battle banner of the Army of Northern Virginia was mostly built around “Gone With the Wind.” Men were men, women were women and Butterfly McQueen was a real person. A lot of that nostalgia is misplaced and glosses over the realities of slave markets and whips…as much as it disguises the very real moments of clarity and kindness that had to have been a part of the fabric of southern life. I understand clinging to a dream, but I do not understand the vehemence with which people deny the symbolism to a vast array of Americans. In many ways, I too, long for the softness that history has painted around plantation life. It might well have persisted if the workforce had been paid labor, not slaves. Without the crucible of the Civil War, who would we be now?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      Agreed. And since you brought it up, I’ve never understood the idolization of Gone With the Wind. It clearly doesn’t stand up to time. A sentimental piece of crap, imho.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I do feel the need to react to both comments/replies. Not been born in the US makes it easy for me to see both sides since I, nor my born-to family, were either with the North nor the South. However, I do live in the South and I see their plight daily.

    Yes, the North wanted to abolish slavery but at the same time they didn’t want the freed black people moving into their communities either and kept the ones who did live there on a short leash (no pun intended here!) with minimal to no rights at all (see my earlier reply).

    You ask “How much does black racism affect you? Did it determine your place in society from birth, did it determine what chance you had to get an education and improve yourself?”

    Yes it did, because if members of my in-laws would have been black there would have been many more opportunities to “further” themselves. But because they are from the (white) middle class they constantly hear “if you were black there wouldn’t be a problem” when trying to register for college courses for example. Look at all the things there are to further education for colored people where there are none that I can think of to further the education of white people. And I was denied a job because I was white because they needed a black person to fill their quota even though my qualifications were precisely what they needed for the job. So yes, it does affect me directly.

    What bothers me in all of this is that the good people of the South are being portrayed as simpletons, rednecks, racists, and dumb who need to be educated “because they don’t know why the South fought in the Civil War.”

    Of course they know why the Civil war was fought. And not everyone in the South (but I can only speak for the people I know of course) is a racist and they are bothered -which is an understatement- by the fact that the recent actions of one who was taught to hate is said to reflect on all, which is complete nonsense. And for the flag, and I am glad “waywardpioneer” pointed that out too, people need to be educated that this is not the Confederate Flag but the personal flag of General Robert. E. Lee and his Virginian Army. Maybe that was part of “Gone with the Wind” too and I agree that the notion of a lot of people about the Civil War comes from Miss Mitchell’s book and it terrifies me that they know as much about the Civil War as Prissy knew about “birthing babies“. There was nothing “civil” about this war.

    As for fighting in the Civil War and “rich slave owners paid poor whites to fight in their place, and those whites didn’t have slaves”, you know that isn’t true.

    Did all the good young men who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor do that because they wanted to save the Jews from the Holocaust, or maybe rescue democracy in Europe? Or maybe even to save Asia from Japanese control? No. They picked up arms and enlisted for the same reasons they have done so for centuries and as most men on both sides saw it: their homeland had been attacked, “God and Country” called and they answered. And don’t forget all the immigrants from Europe that came over during the Civil War. They were conscripted and had no clue as to what they were fighting for.

    “What seems to be overlooked in all of this discussion is that the flag represents not just a struggle to own slaves, guised under “states rights” but open rebellion and, in fact, treason, against the United States.” Interesting point, especially since the birth of the United States came from open rebellion and, in fact, treason?

    Don’t get me wrong here, I do oppose slavery in all form and uses. At the same time I am wondering when colored people will stop blaming white people for something that has happened to their ancestors over a century ago? It’s not like the white people of today can help or change what has happened back then? If people would only look past the color of someone’s skin, that would be a start but it has to work both ways.

    Yes, that is hard because of the racial divide that still exists in the US but I always think, when you want to be part of a society -and maybe I am painting a Utopia here- why do you have to place yourself outside of it and then expect everyone to accept your views?

    A lot of my Afro-American friends idolize Africa and their roots. As is their right, they can do that. How many have been there and seen what life is like in modern Africa with all their civil wars, warlords, and child soldiers? Do they really want to ally themselves with all that hatred and killing? Personally I wouldn’t; I would want to make something of myself and be grateful I wasn’t living there but in a land of opportunity, which the US still is or can be.

    As to your last question “And considering America’s history, who has more reason for such a chip on their shoulder?” I want to say “How about the indigenous, native people who lived here before they were thrown off their lands?”. But here we are, every 2nd Monday in October we all celebrate Columbus Day and his genocide of millions of indigenous people. Well, not “all” of us because there is a shift to celebrating “Indigenous People’s Day” or “Native American Day” in some States. But that is something entirely different as to what you wrote in this blog….

    I am just glad people can have a civil discussion about something as important as this.

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