It’s his flag, not yours.
Friday, I was walking along Main Street in Nashua, New Hampshire, a few blocks from where I live, when a pick-up truck drove by trailing a full-size Confederate battle flag behind its cab.
The truck didn’t stop, so I didn’t have a chance to ask the driver what message he thought he was sending. But I know what message I received. A little more than 36 hours had passed since Dylann Roof had murdered nine black people at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, saying “You rape our women and you’re taking over the country. You have to go.” So, given the timing, what such a vigorous display of that flag said to me was: “Right on, Dylann.”
It’s possible that I’m misjudging that driver. Maybe he’s a Southerner stuck in New England for the summer, showing his regional pride. Maybe he’s a Lynyrd Skynyrd or Dukes of Hazzard fan who hadn’t been listening to the news at all. Maybe he’s the kind of guy who just likes to get a rise out of people like me. Maybe … I don’t know. I can spin possibilities all day, but the message I keep coming back to is: “Right on, Dylann.”
It pissed me off. I’m white, I’ve never been to Charleston, and to me Roof’s nine victims are little more than names and faces on my TV. But I imagine being gunned down in my church by someone I welcomed, and I get angry. And then I feel sad. And then I despair that we will never be done with this ancient tribal barbarism, much less ever achieve our stated national goal of “liberty and justice for all”.
As the truck went by, I didn’t respond, didn’t yell an insult or wave my middle finger or anything like that. To be honest, it was gone before I could react. But I like to think I would have restrained myself anyway. Because my anger, my sadness, my despair … maybe that was exactly what the driver wanted from me. Maybe hate-evoking-hate was exactly his purpose.
I don’t know what purpose motivates the government of South Carolina, or the legislature that put Dylann Roof’s favorite flag on top of the capitol in Columbia in 1961, and responded to an NAACP boycott in 2000 by moving it to fly in front of the capitol rather than above it. (Because the details of its presentation are enshrined in law, the flag could not be brought to half-mast in response to the Charleston massacre. So the American flag was lowered, but the Confederate flag was not.) I can’t say what motivates leaders like Governor Haley or Senator Graham to continue defending that flag.
Probably no state is more identified with the Confederacy than South Carolina, and no city more than Charleston. In 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Charleston harbor was where the Civil War’s first shots were fired. Charleston is where the Southern delegates walked out off a Democratic convention set to nominate likely general-election winner Stephen Douglas, splitting the party and setting the stage for Lincoln’s election and South Carolina’s secession. (According to historian Douglas Egerton, that series of events was foreseen and intended by the walkout’s leaders.) Years before that, South Carolina was the home of John Calhoun, whose speech “Slavery a Positive Good” announced to the Senate the arrival of the defiant, self-righteous Southern attitude that laid the groundwork for secession and war. (Calhoun’s statue still stands on a pedestal high above Charleston. The Emanuel AME Church where the massacre took place is on Calhoun Street.)
For decades after Appomattox, the Confederate flag was displayed mainly at cemeteries and war monuments, but it became a political symbol again after President Truman desegregated the military in 1948 and Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats rebeled. Truman was succeeded by Eisenhower and Kennedy, each of whom sent federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation decisions. As the federal government became more and more identified with the civil rights movement, states and cities across the South began flying the Confederate flag over their official buildings. As in the 1860s, the flag represented “states rights”, but particularly a state’s right to oppress its Negro population.
South Carolina started flying it over the state capitol in 1961. After the Voting Rights Act restored the franchise to South Carolina’s blacks, the flag became a political issue. The slogan of those whites who want to keep it flying has been “heritage, not hate“, as if the heritage of South Carolina and the Confederate flag could somehow be separated from slavery, segregation, lynchings, and all the other manifestations of racism right up to Wednesday night’s massacre.
Since Wednesday, there has been a national backlash against the flag. In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “Take Down the Confederate Flag – Now“, and many other writers and bloggers have posted some similar message, often in an angry or demanding voice. Hundreds protested in Columbia Saturday, but South Carolina’s political leadership has held firm. That intransigence has prompted calls for protesters to take more drastic action.
In that South Carolina will never willingly take down the flag, the time has come for opponents to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and burn the Confederate flag — at the state Capitol in South Carolina, in front of the White House, in front of Fox News or maybe even outside the Grand Ol’ Opry.
The writer angrily compares the flag to the Nazi hooked cross, and I’ve seen many blog articles and Facebook posts referring to it as “America’s swastika” or “the Confederate swastika“. (I found a literal Confederate swastika posted on a forum of the white supremacist group Stormfront. “I like it … a lot!” replied a commenter.)
I can imagine the feelings that lead people to say and write (and now do) stuff like that. Probably they’re a lot like what I felt when that truck went by me on Main Street. But burning Confederate flags to protest the Charleston massacre is like burning Qurans to protest 9-11. Yes, it will piss off the people who pissed you off. But how does that lead us anywhere good? I doubt that the glow of burning flags or books has ever enlightened anyone.
And enlightenment is what we need. The people who fly the Confederate flag need to come to understand the message they are sending. And understanding that message, they should take their flags down voluntarily. (Except for what I hope is the minority that really does want to say, “Right on, Dylann.” Racists have free-speech rights too.)
That’s what I’m asking, in as polite a form as I can manage: Please take your flag down.
I know you think your flag says something positive. But you need to understand that your intention does not control the message. You’re not saying what you think you’re saying.
Nobody enjoys being compared to the Nazis, but there is one way in which the swastika is an instructive example: It didn’t always mean what it means today. The swastika has a millennia-long history as a positive religious symbol. Even the word swastika has a pre-Nazi history, tracing back to a Sanscrit word that means good fortune. Particularly in India, you can see the hooked cross carved into temples built long before anyone ever heard of blitzkrieg or Kristallnacht or the Final Solution. There’s a lot in the swastika that I might want to invoke.
But I can’t.
The Nazis ruined the swastika. They own it now, because nothing captures a symbol like blood sacrifice.
Today, if I get a swastika tattoo or wear a swastika t-shirt or stencil a swastika onto the hood of my car, it doesn’t matter what I want it to mean. Whatever I think or intend, the swastika is a Nazi symbol, and no German-American like me will be able reclaim it for any other purpose for centuries.
And no, it doesn’t matter that generals like Rommel and Guderian were brilliant tacticians who revolutionized warfare, or that many of the brave German soldiers who marched under the swastika just wanted to defend their homes and families. The swastika is inextricably linked to Hitler and Auschwitz, and if I display it, I am linked to them too.
Something similar is true of the Confederate battle flag. Whatever you want it to mean, it belongs to the people who have sacrificed blood to it: the slave-masters and their defenders, the klansmen whose lynchings enforced Jim Crow, and the white supremacists who are still with us.
Dylann Roof laid his claim to the flag Wednesday night. He owns it; you don’t. What you want it to symbolize just doesn’t matter.
So take it down. It doesn’t say what you want it to say, and it won’t for generations to come.