America never recovered from its Civil War, which killed nearly a million combatants on both sides. The Union won on the battlefield but conceded a cultural victory of sorts to the defeated South, spinning a myth of Southern gallantry in a lost cause. This myth dominated the popular culture from D.W.Griffiths’ 1916 epic
Birth of a Nation (which celebrates the rise of the Ku Klux Klan) to Margaret Mitchell’s
Gone with the Windwith its romantic image of antebellum plantation culture.
—David P. Goldman
After decades of opposition to the flying of the Confederate battle flag on public buildings and public land, the race-motivated massacre of nine African Americans in a church has produced instant enlightenment among people who previously have defended the flying of that seditious banner. If, that is, political opportunism and the ability to read the handwriting on the wall can be considered enlightenment.
Not only has the Republican governor of South Carolina and Sen. Lindsey Graham called for taking down the battle flag still flying on the state capitol grounds, Graham and a leading Republican state lawmaker in Mississippi want to remove the battle flag from the corner of that state's flag. Some lawmakers in Virginia want to stop including the battle flag on vanity license plates. Sears, eBay, and Walmart have all decided not to sell the Confederate battle flag and other merchandise featuring the flag.
Welcome though belated moves. But while those may garner some sniping from the likes of Bill Kristol and Haley Barbour, taking down the flag is easy. No matter how good it will be to see less of that symbol of treason and slavery tainting the land, it is just a symbol, a relic of the "Lost Cause" and a symptom not the disease of deep-seated racism that plagues our nation a century and a half after the Civil War. If disappearing from public view this flag—which was dragged from obscurity by advocates of Jim Crow in the 1950s—is really to mean anything significant, it must mark the start, not the end of reforms needed to crush racism.
Let me not be misunderstood. Some people have said that fighting for the removal of this flag is a waste of political energy. I don't agree. I was born in Georgia in a house literally on the wrong side of the tracks, segregated to "N----rtown" because my family was Seminole. The year I was born, Georgia was the site of the last mass lynching in America until the killings of the civil rights workers in 1964. The year after my mother and I left the state, 1955, the Georgia legislature adopted a new flag, two-thirds of which was made up of the Confederate battle flag. I always despised it.
Head below the fold for more on what the Confederate flag represents.
In 1965, a year after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, University of Colorado authorities informed fraternities and sororities that they would no longer be allowed on campus if they maintained segregationist charters. One of them—Sigma Chi—refused to change. And to punctuate their opposition, the members moved the giant Confederate battle flag that hung in their dining hall to an outside wall of the frat house. Several days later, a bunch of us showed up with a ladder in the middle of the night, ripped the flag down and burned it in a trash can until the police rolled up and made us put it out. We were not charged with any offense. (Sigma Chi was soon suspended from all participation in university events and Greek "rush" activities.)
I certainly don't regret doing that. I would do it again. But 50 years after our mini-guerrilla action, racism has not vanished. Nor would it do so even if every Confederate flag were removed from public display tomorrow. It's not the dreadful flag that is at the heart of our problems, it's the attitudes and the continuing effort to turn those attitudes into law. And, it is important to always remember, such attitudes are not only an issue in the states of the Old Confederacy.
If the surge of opposition directed toward disappearing that flag is to truly mean anything, then it must only be the first corrective step.
I'll be impressed with Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham and their ilk when they move to end racist voter suppression, racist police brutality and our profoundly racist criminal justice system. When they and others deal with the outrageous levels of black unemployment. When they go head-on against racist housing rip-offs like this one documented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
And, of course, when they act affirmatively to bring an end to the white supremacist hatred that engendered the terrorist massacre in Charleston. While Dylann Roof clearly enjoyed brandishing the Confederate battle flag, the flag wasn't what spurred him to commit those murders.