The enormously tragic Charleston shootings have renewed a national dialogue on the flying of the Confederate flag, and I’ve had an illuminating discussion of that subject with a good friend. He’s a Wilton High School alumnus who just graduated from a very prominent university in the South where his senior thesis (not on this subject, though on a topic related to the Civil War) won that university’s prize for the best history thesis.
I offered my perspective on what I termed the kernel of truth in a Big Lie. That Big Lie is that the South should have been left alone and has been oppressed ever since. The kernel of truth that helps to keep that Big Lie alive is that Confederate troops fought well and courageously though out-numbered and out-supplied by a much more populous and industrial-and-railroad-developed North (and even though many of those Confederate soldiers were poor whites who owned no slaves and whose families were enduring starvation while their breadwinner was off fighting even as their fellow African-American Southerners remained enslaved).
I added that Lincoln was the one person who, by thoughtful policies firmly applied (“with malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right…”), could have ended the romanticism that grew from that kernel. Instead, heavy-handed post-war carpetbagging policies, followed in the 1870s and beyond by the opposite approach of federal hands-off as the Southern states gathered renewed political power, simply fed the Big Lie. As we’ve heard during the outstanding Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society series this winter, the withdrawal of federal troops from the South allowed the KKK to rise and oppression of African Americans to continue unimpeded for generations. The result was a second enslavement that lasted in its worst form until 1960s civil rights legislation.
Lincoln would have held up the ideal of full equality (as he did in his final speech before his assassination when he called for voting rights for African Americans) and cajoled, embarrassed, and ultimately disciplined those who failed to live up to that ideal. Perhaps the dialogue resulting from the enormous tragedy of the Charleston shootings is propelling much-needed additional movement in this direction.
My friend replies, “I don’t believe there is any justification for any state or local government to be displaying or promoting the Confederate flag by any means, including as a memorial to those who fought in the Civil War, and I’m thrilled that private enterprises from Walmart to NASCAR are refusing to sell or display merchandise with the Confederate flag that so many find offensive. I think, though, that Northerners fundamentally misunderstand that the Confederate flag retains resonance among White people in the South as a people who feel that they have been marginalized — even though they themselves were the originators of the most thorough system of discrimination in American history.
“To many, the Confederate flag isn’t a symbol of African-American pain, it’s a symbol of their own…. They cannot understand how the flag was first and foremost a racist symbol. They view it as a rare emblem of pride in a region that’s been told for 150 years that they aren’t supposed to be proud… All that being said, it doesn’t outweigh the racist and treasonous implications the flag carries, and I’m very happy to see South Carolina getting rid of it even as I also think that non-Southerners need to hear this perspective. For something that can seem so integral to group identity, the remaining challenge is accepting that the flag symbolizes nothing but hatred to others and is a vehicle for the expression of outright racial hatred by some both inside and outside the South. It’s a challenge that many White Southerners have yet to face, but hopefully this will be the moment when that happens.”
His last point resonates especially strongly with me: The Confederate flag is so wound up with racism that it’s impossible to separate the racism reflected in it from the matter of Southern solidarity. Also, it’s hard to speak of that flag as a symbol of Southern solidarity when a large portion of the population of the South, who suffered the same regional marginalization as their white fellow Southerners, finds that symbol repugnant.
It’s good that this dialogue is at last happening and is being heard loud and clear in quarters of the country where it has heretofore fallen on deaf ears. It is just so profoundly sad that it took the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church for that at last to happen.