Americans, like most societies, have reveled in their history. The deeds and events we take pride in are legion, from the 18th century and the colonists’ radical break with Great Britain, represented by the profound and inspiring justification of rebellion and listing of grievances proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, to the improbable victory against — at that time — the world’s mightiest superpower. The Constitutional Convention and resulting Constitution saved our fledgling nation from unraveling due to the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation. The U.S. Constitution has inspired countless and served as a model for nations the world over.
Deeds and events all the way up to the 20th century, like the exploits of what’s known as our “Greatest Generation” — those who endured the ravages of the Great Depression and played a pivotal role in the victory over tyranny and oppression in World War II. As Americans we often, and rightly, look back with pride. Symbols and objects that give honor to these past great deeds, events and documents inspire, motivate and rally us to this day.
But we also, rightly, look back and feel shame. Shame at the fact that though the nation was born of ideals that espoused liberty, freedom, equality and justice, these were not given to all willingly. One of the bloodiest and most painful periods in the country’s history, the Civil War, tested whether America’s vision of liberty would be an inclusive one, or one that rang hollow because of the subjugation of a race of people seen as cursed by God, not worthy of being viewed as truly human, but only as beasts of burden and objects of derision. The latter did not stand, and the cause that was dedicated to the preservation of a societal and economic model that had at its basis the enslavement of blacks was defeated. The flag of the Confederacy was supplanted throughout the South with that of the victorious Union.
Objects and symbols do have meaning. They communicate values, beliefs and a people’s priorities. Charleston, South Carolina, radio personality and writer Jack Hunter, also known as the ultra-conservative “Southern Avenger,” recently stated, “I argued the Confederate flag wasn’t about race. I believed it. Millions of well-meaning Southerners believe it too. I was wrong. That flag is always about race. Whatever political or historical points the flag’s defenders make, there will never be a time, and never has been a time, in which millions of Americans have looked at that symbol and not seen hatred. We can argue for the rest of time whether this is fair or not. And for the rest of time, that symbol, will be seen in an overwhelmingly negative light … ”
Hunter goes on to make a profound point which, to me, goes to the heart of this issue: “I am here to say there is something at stake far more important than this symbol. Heritage may not be hate. But battling hate is far more important than anyone’s heritage, politics or just about anything else. We should have different priorities. I now have different priorities. Dylann Roof is a reminder of what’s at stake.”
As the push for the end of Jim Crow segregation swept the South during the Civil Rights movement, Confederate battle flags were raised at state capitols across Dixie. The flag flew as a symbol of defiance, as a symbol that the society that many whites in the South saw as the natural order of things — whites in control, and blacks in subjugation — would not be supplanted by what was to them the totally abhorrent and “communist” ideas of black equality and integration with whites. Times have changed, but those symbols have remained. This should not be.
Without a doubt, not everyone who has or likes the Confederate flag is a racist. Yet, the flag has been and is readily co-opted by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and twisted racist individuals like Dylann Roof because it represents an antebellum society that was unapologetically and unashamedly racist. The Confederate flag symbolizes a movement that had at its core the right of states to maintain and perpetuate the inhumane servitude of blacks.
Did every Confederate soldier rally to the cause of slavery and black subjugation? No, they didn’t. Many simply fought for their homes, family and state that they loved. But did the architects of Southern secession and rebellion have this as a principal motivation? Yes. Why? Because slavery made them rich — incredibly rich. Prior to the first shots being fired in Charleston, South Carolina, igniting war between the North and the South, cotton was America’s leading export. Most of the world’s supply of cotton came from the American South. The sweat and labor of black slaves produced that cotton. The Southern aristocracy was not about to let their economic model, based on human servitude, be restrained or upended. The Confederate States of America was the result.
That’s why, far from bending to political pressure or political correctness, those leaders who are trying to remove, or have removed, the Confederate flag from state capitols and municipalities get it. The Confederate flag is not a representation of what unites us, but of what divides us. As we continue to try and craft “a more perfect union,” the flag coming down helps facilitate that effort, just as continuing to let it stand impedes it. Will it end racism and hatred? No. Will it show that we are trying to overcome it? Yes. Preserve it, but don’t promote it.
This Fourth of July weekend, yards, streets, office buildings, government buildings and the like will be covered with all manner of symbols and objects commemorating our nation’s birth. This Saturday night, while staring up at breathtaking exploding fireworks, Americans of every hue and age will be waving replicas of our nation’s flag, reminded of the privileges and promise that it represents. We owe a debt to imperfect men who nevertheless left us with noble ideas and an inspired purpose. Our symbols remind us of that. What represents us matters.