The Confederacy, Racism and the Legacy of a Flag

confederate_flagDoes the Confederate Flag represent racism?  Are we denying a part of our country the opportunity to celebrate their heritage by removing the Confederate Flag from public buildings?  Are we making too much of this whole debate?

To answer that question, we need to first clarify two things: 1.) Why was the Civil War actually fought?, and 2.) What are the roots and meaning of the Confederate Flag?

Why was the US Civil War actually fought?

There’s a natural tendency to view history in a way that makes us feel better about the truth.  The truth is that the Civil War was fought over slavery.  Any other explanation is revisionist at best, and plain lies at worst.  There is a strong tendency to say that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights”, which is only true in that the right the states were fighting over was the right to have slaves.  (Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession is a clear example of the true cause of the Civil War.)

That’s not to say that the fight over slavery was as simple as we’d like to believe.  There wasn’t a line in the sand where everyone north of the line believed slavery had to be abolished and everyone south of the line wanted to keep it.  In fact, the South seceded not because slavery was going to be abolished (there were no immediate, active federal plans to do so), but because the expansion of slavery into new territories was at stake.  There were plenty of people in the northern states who would have been perfectly okay with the continued existence of slavery, and even many who were okay with its expansion into new territories.  There were plenty of individuals in the South who were morally opposed to slavery and would have preferred to see it abolished.

Even at the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln, while morally opposed to slavery, was not actively planning for emancipation of slaves in the existing slave holding states.  That decision came later, and the timing of the decision was made in part because of a need for increased troops to fight the war.

It’s also important to note that the end of the war and the treatment of the Confederate army after the war was, and this is an understatement, unusual.  Pardons and immunity from prosecution for treason was offered to virtually all Confederate soldiers.  President Lincoln initiated the lenient view, while President Johnson took that amnesty even further.  Eventually even Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the seceded Confederate States, was pardoned.

That lenient view has led to 150+ years of a confusing Confederate legacy.  Public monuments have been built to honor Confederate leaders.  Streets, parks and buildings are named in honor of Confederate generals.  We’ve created an environment that permits-even encourages-pride in the Confederate cause.

What are the roots and meaning of the Confederate Flag?

The Confederate Flag as we know it today was a battle flag, originally flown at the Battle of Bull Run by Confederate General Beauregard’s troops.  After the Civil War, it saw limited use in the South, often flown at events memorializing fallen Confederate soldiers.  Small controversies over the flag arose throughout the 19th century over whether captured battle flags should be returned to the South by the federal government (virtually unprecedented in any other civil war throughout global history).

It wasn’t until the 1948 presidential campaign of Senator Strom Thurmond that the Confederate Flag began to be universally recognized as a symbol of segregation and racism.  Senator Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform, and used the flag as a symbol of that campaign.

In the 1960’s the flag was raised above the South Carolina Statehouse, ostensibly in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.  However, at the same time, South Carolina lawmakers were resisting the adoption of Civil Rights measures – and the flag remained over the Statehouse as a symbol of the protest against Civil Rights.

(AP Photo/Eric Draper)

(AP Photo/Eric Draper)

So is the Confederate Flag the problem?

Flags are symbols that are given meaning by the people who adopt them.  Is the flag the problem?  No.  But the problem is what the flag has been used to represent – and to allow the flag to continue to fly over the state capital building in South Carolina IS a problem.  (South Carolina has voted to remove the flag, and their debate to do so highlighted many of these points.)

If we look to recent history, allowing the flag to remain on the capital building is problematic because it was left there in the 1960’s to represent a protest against Civil Rights.  If we take a longer view of history and go back to the original meaning of the flag, allowing a flag that represents secession and treason to fly over a state capital is misguided at best.

I am not advocating that we should ban the Confederate Flag.  It certainly should exist in museums and should be understood in the context of history – the good, the bad and the ugly.  (Although let’s agree that most of its history is bad and ugly.)  I believe that you should be allowed to wear a t-shirt with the Confederate Flag, fly it on the back of your pick-up truck and put it out on your front lawn; because I believe in your 1st Amendment Right to free speech.  (I have a right to assume that by flying the Confederate Flag, you are either racist or uneducated.)  I think every retail store has a right to decide for themselves whether they choose to sell Confederate Flag merchandise, just like I have a right to decide whether or not I choose to shop at those establishments.

So many sources…
I’ve waited to wade into the debate on the Confederate Flag until I had an opportunity to do some research.  I have, like everyone else, immediate, visceral reactions to current events – but before it hits my blog, I’ve vetted those reactions through more than one source of information.  There are a lot of sources for me to mention, and I’m sure I’ll miss some.  This list includes only the online sources, and not the books I’ve read over the last year:

It is not easy, but it is also not “complicated”.

michaelbrownLike so many others today, I’m sad.  Frustrated. Angry.  There’s a sense of impotence, not knowing what I can do or say that will make tomorrow better than today for the community around me.  I don’t know what else to do, so I’m going to write.

In an editorial on CNN earlier today, Safiya Simmons, a black woman married to a police officer, said that she is  conflicted on the Darren Wilson verdict.  On one hand, she is raising her son and living in a society that displays “a pattern in this country of killing black boys without care or consequences”, while on the other hand, she believes firmly that her husband should do what he needs to do to stay alive and come home to her at the end of day.  In her words, it’s “complicated”.

Being a police officer is dangerous, thankless and unbelievably self-sacrificing.  It also comes with a legal and moral obligation for discipline, objectivity and restraint when asserting your authority and in the use of your firearm.  I would guess that 99.99+% of the police force in America are great men and women with great judgement, who are worthy of our support, praise, thanks and trust.  Darren Wilson is not one of them.

Don’t make Ferguson about people who support cops versus people who don’t.  Doing so is to completely misunderstand and minimize the depth of the issue.  This is about justice for victims of cops who go too far and get away with it.  This is about a system that is broken. This is about respect for all lives of all colors.  This is rooted in hundreds of years of history.  This isn’t easy, but it is also not “complicated”.

If Michael Brown had been armed with a gun…  If Darren Wilson had fired only to disable or deter the unarmed teenager…  If Darren Wilson had fired only one shot…  If the fatal shot had been at close range while Michael Brown was within reaching (punching, tackling) distance of Officer Wilson… If any one of those things had been true, I might believe that Darren Wilson was doing what he needed to do to stay alive and go home at the end of the day.  But 12 gun shots – only one, non-fatal, at close range – is in no way simply what he needed to do.

12 gunshots and a body left in the street for more than 4 hours is a disregard for the life behind the skin color.  It is, at the very least, a loss of control and negligence in the use of a firearm that deserves the due process of a criminal trial by jury.

(This post fails to address so many other critical issues that the shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests brought to light.  The handling of the protests, the numerous questionable decisions of the prosecutor, the violence in the midst of pleas for peace from Michael Brown’s family, and the underlying systemic racism that so many want to deny.  I’m going to try to spend some time over the upcoming weekend digging into the grand jury testimony, and I expect this will not be my last post on this topic.)

I’m ready to jump into the race conversation.

Months later, I still can’t figure out how to process the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The week after the shooting, I came close to getting in my car and driving to Missouri to participate in protests against the Ferguson police. I wanted to be there, to see with my own eyes that this was actually happening in our country, because the stories and the images seemed to be more Middle Eastern than American.

Ultimately, I didn’t get into my car, but even from a distance, the events in Ferguson opened my eyes to the realities of life in the United States in a way that only a few key events during my lifetime have done.

Just a few weeks before Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, an old college friend posted a link on Facebook to a story in the Post-Gazette about the quality of life for African American residents of Pittsburgh. I’m ashamed to say that I was shocked by the story, as I have always been proud of the diversity of the city. Having grown up in rural Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh feels diverse, open-minded, culturally progressive and, having been voted so many times, “most livable” of a city for people of all kinds. I didn’t even realize that I was seeing the world through a haze of white privilege.

racismThat article prompted me to start doing some research. Race was something that I never thought about much. If anyone had asked me, I would have insisted that I was staunchly not racist and a strong advocate of race equality. The latter was, in hindsight, an overstatement and the former…   I saw a video (which I can no longer find) from a white racial equality advocate who made a compelling case that not being racist requires more than just saying that we’re not.  We also need to acknowledge and actively fight against the prejudices that we have grown up around and see and hear all around us.   Being a strong advocate for equality is going to require a lot more advocacy on my part.

The bottom line is that I have a lot more work to do.

I plan to make race a bigger topic in upcoming blog posts. I have at least three separate blog posts floating in my head about systemic racism, white privilege and the simple need to talk about race.  There’s been more talk about race recently than I can remember in recent years, but I want to appeal to those of you who, perhaps like I did, feel like race can’t be talked about from a place of white privilege. It can – and it should be – as long as we understand where we are coming from and how that position influences our experiences.

Here’s a few videos to get us started.

For now, I want to leave you with two videos. The first is one that I found incredibly helpful for framing my thoughts on how to talk about race. If you follow the rabbit trail from this video to more from Jay Smooth or more from Race Forward, you won’t be sorry, either. Here a prominent New York radio DJ and race expert talks about how to talk about race.

The second one is a recent Daily Show segment on the lack of national statistics on how many citizens are shot by police.  This issue originally came to my attention within the week following the shooting of Michael Brown, and I am so glad to see Jon Stewart and team shining a light on the topic.

http://on.cc.com/ZdeoYV