In college I once watched a friend of mine tear up an old American flag and use it to wash his car.
I commented that it seemed disrespectful and I was sure there were some people who would beat him senseless for doing something like that. He argued it was just a piece of cloth and didn’t really mean anything more than would an old towel or T-shirt.
I suppose there’s always been two schools of thought on flags. Many people would be willing to punch my friend in the nose for “desecrating” Old Glory. However, there are those who burn it and say flags are just symbols that don’t really have real meaning.
Following the murder of nine people in a South Carolina church two weeks ago by a nut job with a fascination for rebel flags and hatred of African-Americans, the importance of flags is suddenly front and center again. Specifically we’re talking about whether the Confederate battle flag, which was co-opted by rednecks, racists and “The Dukes of Hazzard” long ago, has any place on publicly owned property. And, as usually happens, the pendulum has swung crazily to the other side, to the point where there are discussions of removing all references to the Confederacy, whether it be flags, statues or street names.
The unthinkable massacre in South Carolina has the issue burning across the South like Sherman’s army. In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley made the right move and quickly had the battle flag removed from memorials on the capitol grounds. In other states, debates rage on over whether to remove the flag from atop the capitol in South Carolina, Civil War monuments across the South or even from a portion of Mississippi’s state flag. And Mobile isn’t exempt from the argument either, as several members of the City Council don’t want that battle flag peeking at them from the city seal any longer.
Quick, can you name all six of the flags on Mobile’s official city seal? Probably more of us can now than could a couple of weeks ago.
Councilmen Fred Richardson and Levon Manzie have led the charge to make a change to the city seal, and I think they’re right. The seal features the Third National Flag of the Confederacy, and the battle flag is a major component of that flag. I know it’s not like tremendous numbers of people spend their days gazing at city seals, but I can certainly understand why many of Mobile’s black citizens wouldn’t want to see the battle flag on their city’s seal.
But while I think removing the Third National Flag makes sense, the suggestion of replacing it in the city seal with the state flag does not — if the purpose of Mobile’s six-flag lineup is to show the six different “countries” that at one time or another controlled the city. The simple solution seems to be just replacing it with the First National Flag of the Confederate States of America (CSA), which is never seen on a belt buckle, at a Klan rally or at a Toby Keith concert. I believe Councilwoman Bess Rich has proposed just that and they’ll take up the issue next week.
But there is sentiment the CSA just simply shouldn’t be represented at all because it was an inherently evil entity and something of which we should be ashamed. That’s a huge oversimplification of the issues that started the war, but more importantly it only serves to offend the many people who are fascinated by that time in history for reasons having nothing to do with owning other humans.
There are lots of Southerners who get excited reading about the military strategies, and who take pride in talking about the way the Confederate soldiers were able to hold their own, and often win, against much larger, better-financed armies. That’s why some people dress up in miserably hot wool uniforms in the middle of the summer and have battle re-enactments. I’m sure to almost any of them, the war wasn’t about slavery.
Of course the war was about slavery, and states’ rights, and political power, and money. It was a horrible time in our history. Hundreds of thousands died. Some died defending or trying to stop slavery. Others died because they were drafted. And still others died because they were defending their homes and states from being burned. So it’s complicated.
The Civil War and CSA are part of history, and shouldn’t just be replaced because some people 150 years later don’t like to think about it. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, right?
Perhaps the strangest irony of this whole debate is that every single flag on the city seal represents a government that allowed slavery while Mobile was under its control.
Britain, Spain and France didn’t outlaw slavery until the 1800s, and all allowed it in their colonies far longer. The short-lived Republic of Alabama — whose flag features a coiled rattlesnake under a cotton plant, along with Latin words saying “touch me not” — obviously allowed slavery before joining the CSA. And well, hate to say it, but even under Old Glory, Alabama was a slave state for many years.
So City Council, if the goal is to just get rid of the stigma that comes with the battle flag while still displaying the city’s history, changing to a different CSA flag appears to be the way to go. If you want to purge anything connected to slavery at all, then it’s probably time to get a whole new city seal. Perhaps some airplanes or litter floating in waterways.
I’m glad some of this is taking place. I grew up in Mississippi and that flag is an embarrassment to me personally and the state as a whole. Hopefully they will change it.
There are those who will explain why the battle flag is still honorable, but they lost that argument a long time ago when anti-segregationists adopted it as a symbol of resistance to civil rights. That said, the other side of the debate needs to be mindful of everyone else’s feelings as well.
Ripping Robert E. Lee out of Lee Circle in New Orleans, tearing down busts of Southern generals and statues of soldiers, and renaming highways isn’t going to stop racism and it’s not germane to the murders that ignited this debate in the first place. Both sides should be willing to give a little to get a little.
In the end, flags, statues and city seals are only symbols of division if each side of the debate is more intent on winning than respecting the other.