Charleston, the Confederate flag, and the Civil War

It has taken a while for me to process everything that has happened in the past couple of weeks. And truthfully, I am still processing it.

Never, in my life, would I have predicted that the discussion to get rid of the Confederate flag once and for all would begin in Charleston, South Carolina.

The same place where the Civil War began, all those years ago.

Of course, it took a tragedy to really make it happen.  A tragedy that should have been preventable, and I don’t mean by having armed people at a Bible study.

Finally, as a society, we are having a conversation, a real conversation, about what the Confederate flag means to people who aren’t Confederate reenactors or descendants of Confederate soldiers.  About what that flag really stands for, and what other people see when it is waved around as a symbol.

Never.  Never could I imagine that we would arrive at this point.  I honestly didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.  But at what a price.

Nine lives, taken in a shockingly brutal and callous act, in a gorgeous old church that has a long and distinguished history.  It is horrific.  And the more I learn, the worse it gets.  They invited him in.  They welcomed him.  They prayed with him.  And then he turned on them.

This is not mental illness.  Don’t blow it off and make excuses for him.  Don’t slander the mentally ill by lumping them into the same category as this vile young man.   This kid knew exactly what he was doing.  He planned it for months.

This was ideology.  Pure, hateful, vicious racist ideology.  It didn’t just spring up out of nowhere.  It has been with us for a long, long time.  All the morons who keep insisting that we live in some sort of post-racial society are kidding themselves.  They aren’t fooling me, and they aren’t fooling the people who have to live with this sort of racism on a daily basis.  Just because you don’t see it, Chief Justice Roberts, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

He didn’t just randomly adopt the Confederate battle flag as a symbol, any more than he just randomly chose to have the flags of two of the most viciously racist governments of the late 20th century on his jacket in one of his Facebook photos. Take a look at the results of that Georgia State University poll that is discussed in the link at the beginning of this paragraph.  As they summarized it:

The argument that respect for Southern heritage drives white support for the Confederate flag might lead one to think that flag supporters would be more knowledgeable about Southern history. We found exactly the opposite: whites with more knowledge about Civil War history are actually less supportive of the state flag prominently featuring the Confederate battle emblem[.]

I am not shocked in the slightest. The whole “Heritage Not Hate” argument is garbage.  That flag has always been about hate, from the very beginning.  It was hate when the Ku Klux Klan adopted it after the Civil War.  It was hate when ex-Confederates waved it around in the era of Jim Crow.  Southern states started flying it again to resist desegregation, going back to the Dixiecrats of 1948 and continuing through the 1950s and 1960s.  That Atlantic article linked above has this passage:

Over the next two decades, the flag was waved at Klan rallies, at White Citizens’ Council meetings, and by those committing horrifying acts of violence. And despite the growing range of its meanings in pop culture, as a political symbol, it offered little ambiguity.

Georgia inserted the battle flag into its state flag in 1956. Two years later, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the Confederate flag. And then, on the centennial of the day South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter came in 1961, it hoisted the battle flag above its Capitol.

It was a symbol of heritage—but that heritage was hateful. Two state delegations, in Charleston to mark that 1961 centennial, found themselves barred from the hotel where the ceremony was to take place because they included black members. President Kennedy had to issue an executive order moving the commemoration to the Charleston Navy Base. And when the centennial ended, the flag stayed, proclaiming that South Carolina might have lost the war, but that it was determined not to surrender its opposition to racial equality.

And nearly 150 years later the Klan still sees it as an important symbol.  

So yeah, maybe if you grew up being taught that the Civil War somehow had nothing to do with slavery, and that the flag on top of the “General Lee” somehow meant that the Duke Boys “didn’t mean no harm”, gosh-darnit, or you think it’s all about “Southern pride” and being a proper redneck, then you probably don’t fully comprehend the history of this symbol at all.  It’s the same sort of utter obliviousness I see in oh so many white people, all over the country, but especially in the South.  The sort of people who think that racism is over, that hate crime legislation isn’t necessary, that affirmative action isn’t needed, and that racism and poverty aren’t deeply intertwined here in the U.S.  They probably also don’t realize (or don’t care) that black churches are still being burned down, now, in the 21st century, for the sweet love of all that is holy, something that has gone on here in the U.S. for a really long time.  Good God, open your eyes, people.

My own views of the flag began to change dramatically as I got older and learned more about American history, especially antebellum history and the era of the Civil War in general.  I only wish that I knew way back then what I know now.  I would have reacted quite differently.  Far too often I stood ignorantly by and said or did nothing.  Even when my gut told me that things being said or done were wrong, I did not heed that often enough, or vehemently enough.  But in my defense, I have changed so very dramatically since those days.  I have fought (verbally) with people about Civil War history for some 25 years now: in other words, most of my adult life.  I have argued endlessly with everyone from the avowed neo-Confederates of the League of the South to your garden variety redneck good-ol’-boys about the views of the Civil War as they are broadly accepted across the South.  I have been called all sorts of names.  I have even been threatened.  And I am just a nobody white Civil War historian.  I can’t imagine the vitriol that other people get, although I do occasionally glimpse it, like what this guy gets whenever he debunks Confederate myths.  What I got was bad enough.  Oh Lord, could I tell you some stories.  One of my fields of specialty within Civil War history was Southern Unionism, a subject whose mere mention could send some of the neo-Confederate types around the bend. I remember when talking about founding a Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War chapter in Alabama sent some people into angry screaming fits of rage.  I was there.  That was only 20 years ago.  

Maybe I am just shouting into the wind.  Maybe I am preaching to the choir.  But this is our space, it’s all I have, and so I want to add my own voice to the din that has arisen saying “take it down, take that thing down.  Enough.”  It really is the least I can do.  I wish I could do more.

So on that note, I leave you with one of the best speeches I have seen in many years on these subjects.  Mr. President, you have the floor.

-Geoff

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