The past couple of days I have come across several posts, reactions to posts, Facebook rantings by relatives even, about the fact that Americans are engrossed in two issues at the moment: the confederate flag and gay marriage. But especially our focus on the confederate flag “all of a sudden” irritates some.
Yes, in the same week a man was beheaded in southeastern France, a bomb exploded and killed tens of Shia worshippers in a Kuwaiti mosque, and hordes of tourists were attacked, wounded and killed in Sousse, Tunisia. Yes, this is all horrible, and I feel for all the victims and survivors. And yes, we here in America are aware of these events.
Why Americans are so focused on the confederate flag?
This is not an issue that “all of a sudden” is getting attention because a young white supremacist who took pictures of himself waving the confederate flag recently shot and killed nine black people in a historic black church in South Carolina.
Let’s start with the end of the Civil War. The North, so in 1865 slavery was officially over. The North stationed soldiers in the South and sent Yankee politicians down to ensure that blacks’ newly acquired rights were protected. This effort was called Reconstruction. But as soon as the Northern army left the South–some 10 years later–it was more or less business as usual.
Blacks were no longer slaves, but they had to accept whatever pittance white employers felt like paying and they were often forced to stay in the county where they had been slaves. Lynchings and other forms of terror by the newly formed KKK and other white supremacist groups were the order of the day for blacks who dared to be “uppity”, or who were merely reported as being “uppity.” This period between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is referred to as Jim Crow.
The result of the efforts of African Americans in the 1960s was that they again had their rights protected. The National Guard oversaw elections and the desegregation of schools in the South. And again, changing some laws was a milestone, but it certainly didn’t end racism. The confederate flag has become an established symbol, blacks are still at a disadvantage in education and the workplace, and one of the most egregious examples of the racism blacks still have to endure is their treatment by the police.
This is nothing new, but with cell phone videos and the rapid distribution of news via social networks, the outrage about the deaths of black men and boys at the hands of racist cops and self-appointed neighborhood watchdogs is now instantaneous and nationwide.
And then the shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young man who made the direct connection between his white supremacist ideology and the confederate flag in his videos and selfies. The confederate flag that flew–and still flies–slap-bang in front of the state Capitol.
Now I need to take a small step back. Over the past decades there have been several attempts to remove the confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol and in 2000 it was taken down from the dome of the capitol and planted next to it instead.
And South Carolina wasn’t alone. The confederate flag comes up regularly. A few years ago some Southerners–in Texas and Virginia to name a few–wanted to have license plates with the confederate flag, and either the state supreme courts or the governors had to step in.
The folks who want to fly the confederate flag, have confederate flag tattoos and confederate flag license plates defend themselves as follows:
The confederate flag has nothing to do with slavery or racism. We are just proud of our Southern heritage, which includes the Civil War. Our great-grandpappies fought in the Civil War; it’s an important piece of our history.
Uh-hunh. Except that it didn’t become a symbol for this “heritage” until 1962, during the Civil Rights Movement, when it was introduced as an in-your-face message to blacks that the South was still the South, and whites would forever be superior and in control.
So, you see, there is a bright red thread running straight from slavery through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and the past several decades to the Charleston church last week.
Thanks to social media, there is now a momentum that wasn’t possible even as recently as 2000. It is increasingly difficult for the flag apologists to keep up their rationale and some whites who a week ago would still have been ferocious defenders of the confederate flag are now admitting that, yes, it’s a symbol of racism and it’s time to take it down.
This is huge. For the first time, the governor of South Carolina wants to take down the flag. The governor of Alabama already has. It’s downright comical to see Southern politicians scrambling to distance themselves from white supremacist organizations which had donated to their campaign funds. But this is not just about some Southern governors and other politicians admitting that racism exists in the South. This is about coming to terms emotionally with the reality of the Civil War.
The reality is that the Civil War was started by the Southern states because they wanted to maintain slavery and the federal government wanted to abolish it. Southerners will now have to face the fact that the battle over “states’ rights” was in actuality a battle over slavery. They will have to face the fact that they were on the wrong side, just like the nazis were in World War Two, and that there is nothing noble about the confederate flag, the rebel uniform or the fact that their ancestors fought in the confederate army.
Only when every white person in the South admits this, acknowledges this, geez, even just learns about this in school, only then can white Southerners begin working on being part of the United States, where “all men are created equal”. Then racism can really be addressed, because it takes acknowledgment of a problem before it can be solved.
(All this is not to say that there is no racism in the rest of America; half the police shootings have occurred in the North. But any discussion about Southern racism can only help decrease racism elsewhere as well.)
Honestly, I thought I knew quite a bit about slavery and the Civil War, and I knew there were a lot of rabid racists in the South. I always make it a point to give my dirtiest look to anyone with any kind of confederate accessories on their person. But I’m beginning to realize that I had no clue how bad it still is. I must have heard about the battle to get the confederate flag taken down from the South Carolina capitol, but I don’t remember. I almost fell off my chair when I heard it was still flying on Capitol grounds.
And now folks are talking about changing the names of schools all over the South, including in Texas, that are named after Robert E. Lee, the confederate general.
And Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday in several Southern states. Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America, the CSA.
Oh, and while googling around for this post, I discovered that several states combine Martin Luther King Junior Day with Robert E. Lee Day.
That’s how shameless and at best very thinly veiled and institutionalized racism is in parts of this country. When I try to imagine what it must be like for an African American mother to have to send her children daily through a door into a building that honors the general who fought to keep them enslaved… Frankly, I don’t know how I’d keep my sanity.
It certainly explains why so many blacks segregate themselves, demanding separate dorms on college campuses and such. If I were black and lived somewhere where whites named schools after confederate “heroes” and where they celebrated Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee’s birthdays, I wouldn’t want anything to do with whites either.
In short, this is not all of a sudden a realization that the confederate flag is a thing; rather this moment in history is different and exciting because so many things are coming together at the same time:
- The shocking racism that came to the surface the moment Barack Obama became president;
- the police shootings of unarmed black men and boys, which have gotten national attention during the last couple of years;
- the shooting of those nine people in a situation that was rife with symbolism: they were praying in a church–which is extra shocking for the majority of Americans, who are Christian–a church that had historic significance for the black struggle; the white supremacist gunman idolized everything confederate and the confederate flag hung from the capitol while he did his killing. The confederate flag is still flying while the victims are being buried;
- it’s election time–the anger about the confederate flag was already gaining momentum because of all of the above, and now even more so because politicians are finally realizing that they don’t want to be caught stuck on the wrong side of history;
- the discussion about gun sense–like having background checks so crazy people don’t get their hands on mass murder weapons–has been gaining (some) momentum as well, and groups like Moms Demand Gun Sense are trying to ride this tide.
For the first time since the Civil War there is a serious chance that the South will finally begin distancing itself emotionally from the confederate flag and everything it stands for; that they will start taking down other symbols of the fight to uphold slavery; that they will revisit their history education; that some type of “truth and reconciliation” can take place that goes deeper than passing laws–not to diminish the importance of the Civil Rights Movement’s accomplishments; this is just the next logical step.
So yeah, Europe, this is kinda big. Like an Arab Spring, but American, and hopefully more successful.