AS THE 150-YEAR-OLD DEBATE RAGES ON, CAN WE FIND UNDERSTANDING?
The tragic shooting of 9 Blacks at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina has brought a century-and-a-half debate over the Confederate battle flag to an ugly head. Lines have been drawn in the sand, and there doesn't seem to be much agreement amongst the opposing sides of the issue.
I have long kept silent about this divisive topic, and honestly have not had a dog in this fight. Recent events have forced me to take a long look at this, and I have come to a conclusion on where I stand. But before I express my opinion, I will say that I have sincere hopes of bringing understanding to both camps, rather than to simply throw more gasoline on the fire. That is my goal.
The core of the conflict lies in the fact that the two camps have strongly divergent views on what the Confederate flag, or "Dixie" flag, actually stands for. Surprisingly, this divergence doesn't run purely along political or racial lines, but some generalizations can be made about those for and against the Confederate flag.
Some see the flag as a symbol of Southern culture and pride, of state's rights, and a remembrance of ancestors who sacrificed their lives as soldiers in the Civil War defending their way of life in the south. They view the flag in a completely positive light, as something that invokes warm childhood memories of being raised in Dixie land. It's wholesome Southern family heritage. It's "buckwheat cakes and injun batter", as the traditional song celebrates, to "live and die in Dixie".
To others, the the Confederate flag paints a completely different picture. It is one of racial strife, division, and generations of pain and suffering. It invokes memories of the institution of slavery, and memories of the "Rebels" who defended the Jim Crow laws that remained in force through 1965 in the South. What comes to mind is the connection to White Supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, hate groups, intimidation, and the days of institutionalized racial oppression backed up by state laws.
It's a shock that these two viewpoints could even be describing the same subject, the Confederate flag. And it doesn't appear that those who are on the extreme end of either side of the fence will ever be able to come to the middle ground to see this issue from each other's viewpoint.
To those that hold fast to the Confederate flag, they feel that their allegiance makes a statement for standing up against a federal government gone out of control, steamrolling over the intent of the Constitution in protecting state's rights. They feel a sense of unfair treatment and betrayal among those who would rather define and assign negative attributes to the flag because of its use by hate groups, rather than to honor their right to define it as wholesome and harmless.
But here's where it "all goes south" for the Confederate historians who cannot seem to defend their wholesome family-friendly constitutional-based definition of what the Rebel flag stands for...
The staunch support of the flag has deep emotional roots. That emotion is passionate, and it manifested in the actions of many supporters of the anti-authority "Rebel" mindset after the Civil War. Although the current widely-used Rebel flag was only one of many battle flags used by several regimens of the Confederate army, the Dixie battle flag was the only one widely used that survived until today.
Sadly, one of the most recognizable groups in history that used the symbolic Rebel flag were the ghosts of the fallen soldiers of the Confederate army, the Ku Klux Klan. It was so widely used by the Klan while terrorizing freed Blacks in the South that it's very sight would invoke instant and immediate fear. It often flew during cross burnings, lynchings, gang rapes, and burning of homes.
Literally hundreds of radical White supremacist hate groups overwhelmingly gravitated towards the use of the flag because of its popularity. It continued on through the time of the Civil Rights movement, where we saw it used as the primary symbol for the State's Rights Democratic Party ("Dixiecrats") led by Strom Thurmond as they battled the Democratic party in opposing the Civil Rights platform. In demonstration after demonstration, we sat and watched as myriads of Dixie flags waved in the hands of those who passionately fought against desegregation and equal rights for all human beings.
But as grotesque and hideous as this part of our history may be, those who support the Confederate flag feel that their symbol has been hijacked by the insidious people who don't share their core values. They see it as a "redefining" of what their flag stood for, much in the same way that the well-meaning LGBT community has adopted the use of the rainbow to symbolize their community and culture. They strongly believe that similar symbols mean different things to different groups of people.
In order to help those that are riled up about the "real" meaning of the Rebel flag, let me inject my own personal experience. It might surprise you.
Part of me sees the Rebel flag in the light of "The Dukes of Hazzard". It's the General Lee, a symbol of the South, something that connects me to my roots deep down in Mississippi and Louisiana. Growing up, what kid didn't have a toy General Lee stock car? I know I did. To this day, I want to restore an old Charger and create my very own "General" and show it off to the world.
My Civil War enthusiast side allows me to be able to sit down and debate State's Rights and the Constitution with fellow historians who display the Dixie flag in their homes, on their trucks, and on their clothing. I'm drawn to Civil War reenactments, museums, and historic sites that display both Old Glory and the Rebel flag and it doesn't invoke any negative feelings.
But another part of me remembers those who don't share those historic views...
Growing up in a rural environment during the 70's and 80's, I experienced things that you would think only could have occurred in Selma Alabama during the 60's. I've been spit on, harassed, roughed up, had rocks hurled at me, called every racial epithet in the dictionary, and even endured hearing the phrase "go back to Africa with your people" more than I could count or remember.
A common thread among the people who felt it necessary to hurl these insults and dole out this treatment while I grew up? The Rebel flag. It was thrown in my face with the intent of intimidating me and striking fear in my heart. This was so common that my siblings and I knew that we had better have our guard up when we found ourselves in the midst of pickup trucks & drunken imbeciles donning rebel flags and cowboy hats.
This is why I can see both sides of the story, and why I will admit that the Dixie flag does mean strikingly different things to different people. But I do have a firm stance on what I believe to be the most fair compromise that we can all live by...
Regarding South Carolina and other states that prominently display the Rebel flag, I believe the opponents have a valid case in arguing against flying it on the state capitol property. While I don't believe the flag should be banned by any means, it shouldn't stand in the way of the US flag ever.
The Dixie flag flying on state capitol buildings is still a symbol of the rebellion. 150 years have passed, and we need to realize that the Confederacy lost the war. Whether it be the Stars & Bars or the Rebel flag, the South lost the right to fly the flag over a government institution.
Be that as it may, I believe the overreaction among retailers in pulling all merchandise bearing the Confederate flag is silly. Everyone is overreacting. And it's funny how they didn't think about this until now. All of the sudden, they want to "protect" all of their dear customers from the possibility of being offended. It's very hypocritical.
Sadly, this chain reaction could open up the doors for any and every group to protest the symbols of anything they find offensive. It's a slippery slope, and the precedence now set could turn against people's freedom to express their unique identity in a country that is a major melting pot. It could be open season on all cultural symbols in the near future.
The answer to the Confederate flag conundrum isn't clear. But there is one clear thing we all need to do: start respecting each others right to have differing opinions, and end the fighting. Here's my advice to both camps, and it is my sincere hope that it brings us all back together:
Confederates - While you might have the most sincere intentions in mind, realize that a percentage of people will always have an immediate unconscious negative reaction to the Rebel flag, thanks to the very vocal hate groups who made it so popular. We may never successfully talk people into mentally separating the Rebel flag from the Ku Klux Klan after they have paraded it around for 150 years, and still continue to use it today. You can stand up for your values, but keep reaching out in kindness to those who misunderstand why you hold the Rebel flag so dearly to your heart.
Yankees - Avoid broadly stereotyping everyone you see with a Rebel flag. Realize that it is possible that some people hold no racial malice in their hearts. Admit the possibility that some really do see the flag as a symbol of state's rights, southern culture, and their family upbringing. Yes, we recognize the fact that the Ku Klux Klan is still pushing the Rebel flag in our faces while they spew their racial hatred in the media... but let's take a deep breath and evaluate each situation before we pass immediate judgement on those we see sporting the Rebel flag, and give them a chance before we write them off as card-carrying pro-slavery Klan advocates.
All - Settle down, stop fighting, quit with the bickering, and realize that there are far more important things we need to be expending our emotional energy on. While we are senselessly fighting over a historic battle flag, there are people in the world getting their heads sawed off in the name of religion. Those are REAL problems. Keep it in perspective.
In the immortal words of Rodney King, "why can't we... why can't we all just get along?"
Rodney King Flag Advocate