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And now for your consideration….
What The Confederate Flag Stands For by Chris S.
In the wake of the racist terrorist attack that killed nine people, including a state senator, in Charleston, South Carolina, our nation has once again entered into a debate over racism and the power of symbols. After the attack, the Confederate flag-which adorned the license plate of the shooter-continued to fly over the South Carolina State House.
Since then, SC Gov. Nikki Haley has called for the flag’s removal-a reversal from her former position-as have many other politicians on both the right and left. Businesses such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears have pledged to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise on the basis that the symbol represents racism, slavery, and terror.
While the reception to these decisions has mostly been positive, some object to the removal of the Confederate flag. Many argue that the flag represents Southern pride, not racism, and that getting rid of the flag simply serves to erase history.
In this article, I will address the most common objections of Confederate flag proponents, and show that it is the veneration of this symbol, not its removal, that truly contributes to an erasure of history.
Objection #1: The Confederacy fought for states’ rights, not slavery.
This is the most common argument used to justify the display of the Confederate flag. It is also a myth.
There is a very simple way to settle any debate over whether or not the Civil War was fought over slavery. One merely has to take the Confederates at their word. Confederate leaders were very explicit about what motivated their cause. It had nothing to do with tariffs, and everything to do with preserving white dominance over blacks.
In what became known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens articulated the ideology that motivated his cause:
“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.
. . . look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgement of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws.”
Stephens’ words leave little room for doubt. He says that the desire to preserve slavery was the “immediate cause” of the conflict between the North and South, and he takes pride in being a part of “the first government ever” to be based on the “natural” fact of white dominance over blacks.
Of course, Stephens was just one man. What did others say about the causes of the war?
Every state’s declaration of secession mentions slavery as the primary concern. Here is South Carolina’s:
“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.”
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…”
“As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
“Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”
“…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states…”
How is it then that so many Southern apologists argue that the South fought against tariffs and for states’ rights, and that slavery was at most a secondary concern? A big giveaway in these arguments is that they rarely cite primary source documents. They rely on second-hand interpretations that were invented years after the war was ended. Reading the primary source documents relevant to the causes of secession clearly show that the Confederacy was formed out of a desire to preserve slavery and white dominance, and that this was the primary cause, not a secondary one.
Furthermore, the declarations of secession above also show that the Confederacy, far from being in favor of states’ rights, was actively hostile to the concept when it didn’t get them their way. In many of the declarations you can see objections to Northern states refusingto enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northerners to return escaped slaves to their Southern masters, and to Northern states giving blacks citizenship. This was unacceptable to the South, which needed Northern cooperation if they were to preserve their “peculiar institution.” The rights of free states to handle the issues of slavery and African-American rights as they wished was not at all respected among the slave states.
Whitewashing the true reasons for the formation of the Confederacy is perhaps the most common tactic in justifying the display of the Confederate flag. It’s important that people understand the real reasons for the formation of the Confederacy, so that they know how this symbol started out.
Objection #2: The North was racist too, so if you remove the Confederate flag, you may as well remove the American flag.
Yes, the North was racist. Yes, Abraham Lincoln cared less about ending slavery than about preserving the Union. Yes, slavery still existed in some form in some Northern states.
But to equate the Confederate flag with the U.S. flag is a false equivalence. As previously shown, the Confederate flag isn’t seen as a symbol of hatred simply because the Confederacy tolerated slavery. It is seen that way because preserving slavery was the sole purpose of the Confederacy. This government only existed for a short time, and the “cornerstone” of its existence was the belief in white dominance over blacks. While slavery existed in the United States for a very long time, and was a crucial part of its economy, preserving slavery was never the sole purpose of the United States government. It never existed primarily to preserve slavery.
The American flag means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some it means freedom, to others it means imperialism and oppression. One could argue that the extermination of the Native American population has tarnished our flag more than anything else. But it has never stood solely for the dominance of one group over another. America has always been about far more than that, thus the flag cannot be equated with the Confederate flag, which was created for one reason and one reason only.
Objection #3: Even if the Confederacy fought primarily for slavery, symbols change all the time, and displaying the flag now is simply a mark of Southern pride.
There are many reasons to be proud of one’s Southern heritage. The Confederacy is not one of them. It would be easy to find another symbol that does not have the same history as the Confederate flag to represent Southern pride. Why use one that has been used as a symbol of racism and hatred for so long?
The Confederate flag didn’t stop being used as a symbol of racism the moment the Confederacy lost. The Klan flew the flag on many of their midnight raids. It continues to be used by white supremacist groups today.
And the Confederate flag didn’t start flying over the South Carolina building until 1962, the eve of the Civil Rights movement. Though the official justification was that it was to mark the centennial of the start of the Civil War, many interpreted the move as a show of rebellion against black civil rights, which was opposed by most white Southerners at the time.
Clearly, this symbol started out as a symbol of bigotry, was used as a symbol of bigotry for many decades after, and continues to be used by white supremacists as a symbol of bigotry today. So why is it so important to some (mostly white Southerners) to display it as a symbol of pride today? Pride in what?
Have those who are determined to display this flag considered how it might be viewed by African-Americans? Some African-Americans around today lived through the terror of the Klan.
Few rational people would argue that displaying a swastika would be appropriate, even though it started as a symbol of peace. Most recognize that it would be insensitive to Jews, who suffered so much, to display such a symbol. So why don’t Confederate flag defenders realize that by displaying the flag, they are showing the same type of disrespect?
Objection #4: Removing the flag is simply erasing history.
Actually, as shown above, it is primarily defenders of the flag who have erased history by denying the symbol’s association with slavery and white supremacy. The only reason that the flag is still displayed with any regularity in the South (and less often, in the North) is that history has already been erased. It has been altered to make white people feel more comfortable. It has been altered to make excuses for the wrong side in the worst conflict in our history, a conflict that killed almost as many Americans as all foreign wars combined.
No one is arguing that museums, history books, or other resources about the Confederacy be destoryed. No one is advocating book burning. What we are advocating for is that people stop honoring the Confederacy, because it was a treasonous, white supremacist hate group. No one argues that refusing to display a swastika somehow erases the history of Nazi Germany. So why would refusing to fly the Confederate flag jeopardize our understanding of the history of the Civil War? If anything, our understanding of history could only be improved when we stop honoring and making excuses for such a hateful group, and see them for what they really were.
Objection #5: Removing the flag wouldn’t stop racism.
Well, of course it wouldn’t. But it would be a nice step. How would you feel if your state flew the flag of a secessionist government that was created for the sole purpose of disenfranchising your race of their natural rights? How would you feel if you constantly had to drive down roads named after generals who fought and died to keep you in chains? How would you feel if your child went to a school named after a man who tried to keep them from getting an education?
John Stewart put it beautifully:
“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named after Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s-that’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. You can’t allow that. Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named for Confederate generals. And the white guy is the one who feels like his country is being taken away.”
“Racial wallpaper” may be my new favorite phrase. When your society honors devout racists-not just those who, like Thomas Jefferson, were racists who made other contributions to society, but people whose entire ideology was about preserving white dominance-that has got to have an effect on actual racism within your society. How can it not? Does anyone think that if Germany flew a Nazi flag over their buildings, that wouldn’t have any effect on the level of racism within the country?
Objection #6: Banning the Confederate flag would be a violation of freedom of speech.
I actually agree with this. But very few people are advocating for a full-on ban of the flag. Most are simply saying that states shouldn’t fly it, and that people should reconsider displaying it.
I agree that a ban would be unconstitutional. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to criticize people for displaying this symbol. Freedom of speech means they can fly the flag all they want, and others have the right to call their choice to do so racist, or at least insensitive and ignorant.
That said, some have argued that the federal government could ban state houses from flying the flag. Judge Andrew Napolitano of FOX News appeared on the Daily Show last week, and made the point that while people have the right to freedom of speech, governments do not. Since flying the Confederate flag represents an ideological position, government buildings have no business flying them, argues Napolitano.
So there you have it. Hopefully I have clarified some of the myths surrounding the flag, and shown that the objections to removing the flag do not hold up. The Confederacy was a treasonous group created for the sole purpose of preserving slavery; denying this fact serves to erase history, and honoring the Confederacy is insulting to all Americans, especially those whom the Confederacy fought so hard to keep in chains.