The Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate

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Silent Sam, the Confederate Soldier's memorial at the University of North Carolina.

Silent Sam, the Confederate Soldier's memorial at the University of North Carolina. Credit: CreativeCommons / Don McCullough.

Last year for the first time I visited Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation island off the New England coast beloved by many African Americans and others. President Obama and numerous black dignitaries were visiting and a series of Harvard-sponsored lectures highlighted the progress and plight of Black America. Drifting off by myself I noticed a discordant note: sitting near one ferry dock is a statue of a Confederate soldier. The work was put up a generation after the Civil War as a sign of white American reconciliation. Few black people I talked to noticed it.
What a difference a year makes. Several weeks ago, the nation was forced to confront the undead ghost of the Confederacy. A deranged, Confederate flag-loving, twenty-one year old slaughtered nine people as they prayed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young killer raved about blacks raping white women and wanting to take over the country. In the wake of the murders, calls mounted for the lowering of the Confederate battle-flag in South Carolina public places. On Friday, July 10, many state residents came together to see the symbol officially taken down in the state capital.
In has not always been so. As in the case of the statue on Martha’s Vineyard, for decades there has been an uneasy coexistence between black and white historical narratives. Whites, mainly in the South, celebrated their Confederate heroes and blacks their Civil Rights heroes. Several years ago, while visiting Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, Tony Horwitz observed that the “proximity of black and white icons became a bit strange.” Indeed, Martin Luther King’s Dexter Street Church is near a plaque to mark the site of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural parade. The 2010 Virginia’s proclamation of “Confederate History Month” made no mention of slavery, although, remarkably, the state had already elected a black governor. The Civil War Sesquicentennial called forth waves of celebration. In Florida and Georgia, there were reenactments of the states’ secession conventions. Alabama held a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis. Portentously, some white citizens in Charleston had kicked off the anniversary of the war with a gala ball in period dress.
Some continue to argue that the Confederate battle-flag and other trappings are simply signs of “Southern Pride.” Today the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) still proudly proclaim that “The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” Early in his presidency, President Obama found himself treading warily around such sentiments.In 2009, a group of scholars, including Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, appealed to the first African American chief executive not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery. The monument had been dedicated in 1914 as a tribute not only to the South’s dead, but also to white supremacy. The President, in a Solomanic gesture, sent a wreath to the Confederate monument and one to the African American Civil War Veterans’ Memorial on “U” Street in Washinton, D.C.Obama’s even-handedness at that moment reflected our continued national ambivalence.
The Charleston Massacre unleashed a torrent of questions about the true nature of “The Lost Cause.” President Obama now believes strongly that the battle-flag should be consigned to museums. He noted of Charleston that taking the flag down “would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they [i.e., the Confederates] fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.” Across the country we are coming to acknowledge the “Stars and Bars” as not only a symbol of the slavocracy, but also one of continuing opposition to social progress. In language which prefigures the later Tea Party, in 1999 the chaplain-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) attacked “The aggression-minded totalitarian Northern government” for fostering “abolitionism, transcendentalism, utopianism, state centralism, universalism, rationalism and a host of other ‘isms.'” (During the budget crisis of 2013, a protester waived a giant Confederate flag in front of the White House.)
We lurch between hyperbolic movie depictions of misery on the old plantation to tacit acceptance of Robert E. Lee’s flag as a symbol of chivalry. We need to stop. Removing the Confederate battle-flag from public spaces will not end African American rates of incarceration. It will not mean that black lives suddenly matter. It will not end joblessness. However, it will mean that we all acknowledge that African Americans are part of the nation and that those who fought to keep them out — at the price of nearly 650,000 lives — are finally acknowledged as the failures they were.

Ibrahim Sundiata is the Spector Emeritus Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. Sundiata is a certified lay servant at Union Methodist Church, a welcoming and affirming religious community in Boston as well as the author of four books. He is currently working on his fifth book entitled Not Out of Dixie: A Post-Mortem of Identity in Obama’s America.