Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag

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.

One white supremacist’s merged symbol.

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.

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Comments

  • Gina  On June 22, 2015 at 7:35 am

    This is an interesting idea, which I will ponder for a while. I am partial to pentagrams. I like to wear them and draw them on the covers of my journals. They symbol means something positive and personal to me and to many pagans like me. But I have had Christians react to seeing my pentagrams as though it symbolizes something evil and dreadful. My response has always been to say, just because that’s what YOU see in a pentagram doesn’t mean that’s what’s meant by it. I’m going to spend some time thinking about how this is different…or the same…or how maybe I shouldn’t wear pentagrams because of what they symbolize to the majority of Americans. Shouldn’t I get to decide what my symbols mean? And if my redneck Southern family members decide their Confederate flags symbolize something positive, how is that different?

    In part, I think the answer is that people who feel pride in the Confederate flag really do intend to invoke the terror and the white supremacy the flag represents, at least a little bit. To them that means power, and that’s what they see in the flag. Power to resist, power to not have Some Big Other telling them what to do, even if they’re wrong. I have found that racist people don’t really care that they’re racist, they just want you to shut up about it.

    • lghtly  On June 22, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Thank you so much!! I always love your posts, and this one is superb.

    • weeklysift  On June 24, 2015 at 7:50 am

      Sometimes it seems like the news is consciously pushing me to examine a particular philosophical issue. Lately, that issue has been: To what extent can we create the meanings of our lives and symbols, and to what extent are we born into a matrix of meanings we can’t change? I’ve been running into that, not just in this issue, but in Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal as well.

      I used the swastika as an example of an established meaning beyond my control. A humorous look at the same theme was this scene from Clerks 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qc0akWRBQk

      On the pentagram, I think I mostly agree with you. But I also think that how a symbol is displayed makes a difference: Am I seeking out people who will be offended by my symbol and shoving it in their faces without explanation? Or am I displaying it in a non-threatening way that invites questions and discussion?

  • Suzanne galloway  On June 22, 2015 at 7:52 am

    Please do visit Charleston. It is a wonderful city and by far the most progressive in my backward state.The leaders of Emmanuel AME Church and Mayor Riley have shown the best of our city. We marched about 20 years ago to bring down the Confederate flag and were unsuccessful. Maybe now,after the murder of 9 African Americans, that dam flag will finally be removed!

  • thebhgg  On June 22, 2015 at 7:52 am

    This Church should not have to put the name Calhoun on its letterhead. I’m asking the City Council of Charleston to change the name of the street the church is on.

    https://www.change.org/p/city-council-of-south-carolina-give-the-emanuel-african-methodist-episcopal-church-a-new-address

  • thebhgg  On June 22, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Also: well done for two things very rare in this debate. You point out:

    • Racists have free speech rights, too,

    and you emphasize that you are:

    • asking as politely as possible.

    Quite frankly, the words and symbols we use to represent ourselves or others aren’t nearly as important as the intention and the effect. The “N-word” (any of the various forms: ending in -o, -er, or -a) is so tainted, I won’t use it, even if others use it in the intention I would. So I use some euphemism. But pray tell me, how does removing the N-word from Fox News’ vocabulary make them any less biased?

    *Forcing* South Carolina to take down their beloved flag won’t do nearly as much as we hope for the people whose minds most need to change: the ones in power, who don’t see the harm done by it. I support taking it down, but I fear that pushing against forcefully against these folks will strengthen the tribal mindset that makes flying it so important in the first place. The tribal mindset, by the way, that exists on both sides of the issue.

  • Bill  On June 22, 2015 at 8:49 am

    The headlines in the papers here read “pure evil”.
    I strongly agree with your primary point that ” an enlightenment ” is required.
    What I see is not so much pure evil but rather pure ignorance. It seems to me that labeling the act as simply evil ascribes to it,a somewhat mystical quality….. placing it beyond mankinds ability to change it.
    No, we do have the ability to largely change his type of behavior. Many small, incremental steps like removing that silly flag from the halls of leadership is a step in the right direction.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Judith Purvis  On June 22, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Well said. Thank you.

  • Roger Green  On June 22, 2015 at 9:48 am

    I like your description of the swastika. No, you can’t fly that anymore without people feeling it’s a Nazi symbol, its previous history notwithstanding.

  • fmanin  On June 22, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Almost no symbol is universal. My road atlas of Japan uses the swastika to mark locations of Buddhist temples.

    • fmanin  On June 22, 2015 at 11:02 am

      …and it occurs to me that this might be construed as trying to make some kind of incoherent point, which it isn’t. I was just free-associating.

  • Dan O  On June 22, 2015 at 11:49 am

    What a great, concise synopsis.

  • Margaret Levine Young  On June 22, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Hmm, maybe it’s time for Yale to rename its Calhoun College. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calhoun_College)

  • Caren Sharp  On June 22, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Here’s the difference. The swastika was misappropriated by Nazis who warped its meaning. Now, despite it’s original meaning, it is linked forever linked with genocide and oppression in Europe. And the world is right to admit that and act accordingly.

    So too is the Confederate Flag so linked. But it was designed specifically to demonstrate white supremacy. It’s designer, William T. Thompson, wrote in 1963 “As a people we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would be thus emblematical of our cause. Upon a red field would stand forth our Southern Cross, gemmed with the stars of our Confederation, all combined, preserving in beautiful contrast, the red white and blue”.

    So let’s just dispense with the romanticizing of the purpose. That flag was intended to declare white supremacy, it flies today in a state where current legislators are members of the hate organization Roof copied his manifesto from almost verbatim, and for black citizens everywhere it is a reminder that not only of past oppression but the intended oppression to come. Take down this treasonous rag and put it in a museum! They are plenty of cultural icons the South can be proud of, but this ain’t one!

  • Caren Sharp  On June 22, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Mistake – I meant 1863…

  • Anne Lacy (@annelacy94)  On June 22, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Thank you for your reasoned response to this situation. I agree with the comments made by Caren Sharp and the history that backs up those comments. Hopefully one of these days those in South Carolina will understand and will take it down voluntarily (with the exception of the extreme racists who don’t truly care what others think and seem to be incapable of changing).

  • Anonymous  On June 22, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Your essay is well reasoned but it does seem like you do not really know any Southerners. I see you know some of their arguments but that is not the same as truly understanding the south. America is not a homogeneous culture as us northerners like to think. This type of attitude displays a condensing know it all point of view which is exactly why southerners put up their fight. The flag is an easily identifiable target when we get upset about racism but racism is everywhere. Often I find racism more obvious and profound in the north. the race riots of the past year did happen in the north. Perhaps we should look at what is continuing racism through out the country and stop focusing on a stupid flag as an easy scapegoat.

    • thebhgg  On June 22, 2015 at 9:32 pm

      I think the struggle is two-fold.

      No-one likes outsiders to come in at tell us what’s is wrong with our tribe. I’ve got my beefs with the way my parents raised me, but if you report my family to DCF, I’m going to get defensive and protective, even if they really are looking out for my best interests!

      But combine this tendency with outsiders being able to see things from a different (and in this case, horrifying) perspective, and that defensive pose will get amplified.

      Now, I’m not a Southerner, but I had a childhood in the South (Charleston, SC and McLean, VA, and note: I recognize that Northern Virginia is practically not a part of “The South”). From my perspective, “The South” and especially the love of “The Flag” is racist as sh**. I have no love for the South, and Southerns feel that, and so find it easy to ignore me.

      But on this point, I am right.

      If you want to counter that I don’t see how “The North” is racist too, fine. We can have that conversation, and it will be hard and I will be defensive, but I (like Southerners) should start off by admitting that in our hearts, we know the criticism is well earned.

      My sins do not excuse yours. And South Carolina, in particular, seems proudly racist.

  • johnarkansawyer  On June 22, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    A little Southern Rock, often dedicated to the patriots in the audience, to brighten your Monday: Take Me To The Speedway.

  • Cartia  On June 23, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    I don’t know who you people hang around with in S.C, but the people I know are not racist, they are good people who help whenever they can. We were raised to honor our ancestors who fought in the Civil War; not to perpetrate slavery, but because they loved the south- the land and the people, and they knew Lincoln planned to ruin the south because the north could not survive without it. Do you not understand that the percentage of people who owned slaves was very small- my ancestors were mostly farmers and they fought for their land and their lives. My heritage is not slavery, damn it !!

    • thebhgg  On June 23, 2015 at 8:08 pm

      “Lincoln planned to ruin the south because the north could not survive without it”

      Can you expand on this line of reasoning? Are you saying the north could not survive without ruining the south? Or are you saying Lincoln want to kill (“unsurvive”?) the north by ruining the south.

      On your other substantive point, that most whites in the south did not own slaves, please see, and respond to, point #3 here, repeated below: http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths-about-why-the-south-seceded/2011/01/03/ABHr6jD_story.html

      > 3. Most white Southerners didn’t own slaves, so they wouldn’t secede for slavery.

      > Indeed, most white Southern families had no slaves. Less than half of white Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that proportion was smaller still in whiter states such as Virginia and Tennessee. It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line.

      > However, two ideological factors caused most Southern whites, including those who were not slave-owners, to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy now.

      > Second and more important, belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.” Given this belief, most white Southerners — and many Northerners, too — could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Henry Benning, trying to persuade the Virginia Legislature to leave the Union, predicted race war if slavery was not protected. “The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.” Thus, secession would maintain not only slavery but the prevailing ideology of white supremacy as well.

    • CC  On June 23, 2015 at 8:23 pm

      Cartia, could you explain what you mean by “they knew Lincoln planned to ruin the south because the north could not survive without it”?

  • Brent Holman  On June 24, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    What other country on earth fights a civil war, & then allows the losing side’s Battle Flag to be flown? We have a flag, The American Flag.

  • Mark christopher  On June 26, 2015 at 9:40 am

    You are obviously from the north which is a bad thing to start with. Where is your outrage in here about all the black rappers that have worn confederate battle flags sewn on their clothes or why not condemn the US flag it has seen just as much hatred and slavery as all the Confederate flags combined. Of course this may be your end game. In all you may believe as you want so why not let others do the same as long as it is not physically hurting anyone. As far as I can tell flags have never done any one any harm.

    • CC  On June 26, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      ” Where is your outrage in here about all the black rappers that have worn confederate battle flags sewn on their clothes”

      Mark, I pay zero attention to rap. Could you fill me in on what happened and why it’s a problem?

    • weeklysift  On June 27, 2015 at 7:24 am

      As I think I’ve justified in the post, whatever else anyone might see in the Confederate flag, it has consistently through its history been the flag of white supremacy. It is the flag of white supremacists at this very moment.

      As for letting others believe what they want, when have I not? If anyone wants to continue flying the Confederate flag, that is their First Amendment right. And it is the First Amendment right of the rest of us to ask them to stop promoting racism in this way.

    • weeklysift  On June 27, 2015 at 7:26 am

      Oh, the rappers. Like CC, I have not seen what you’re talking about. However, Monday I’ll do a post about President Obama saying “nigger”. In that article, I’ll discuss all the apparent “double standards” about racial slurs.

    • Brent Holman  On June 27, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      Name another country that fought a civil war & lets the losing side continue to fly their ‘Battle Flag’.

      • Anonymous  On November 19, 2015 at 10:06 pm

        Because we are in the land of the free, we can do as we want. You all think of this as a symbol of racism and hate but you are all horribly mistaken.

      • Brent Holman  On November 19, 2015 at 11:02 pm

        We have a flag, pal. We don’t need a different one.

Trackbacks

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