Racism’s lightning rod

Growing up on the west coast, we only saw Confederate flags in books. When I did, its meaning was one-dimensional to me: slave holders in the southern states who caused the Civil War.

Spider Martin, Confederate flag jacketIn the 1950s and 60s, during the civil rights movement (I grew up during the latter part of that era), segregationists gave the flag its more current, overtly racist message. Many of us outside the south thought we were above bigotry and didn’t understand why some would defend it. But in the subsequent decades I gave the Confederate flag no thought except when the occasional news story popped up, like the ruckus about it on the South Carolina state house.

Confederate flag, Fredericksburg, VASpending this winter and spring in the South though, I’ve been confronted with the Confederate flag pretty often. It’s always made me wonder what it really means to folks here who display it—on flagpoles, on homes, cars, clothes, and more. Like the old white pickup truck we witnessed roaring through Gettysburg flying a large Confederate flag and hollering the rebel yell. (It was not a reenactment!) Like the LARGE flags you can’t miss over Fredericksburg, VA, and along I-75 in Tampa. Even in the arresting Spider Martin* images shown at a Bloody Sunday anniversary exhibit curated and presented by eighth graders at Francine Delany, an Asheville, NC, charter school with a social justice focus. (Spider Martin was the legendary photojournalist who documented the events in Selma 50 years ago.)

Down here you’re exposed to a more tangled dynamic, a seemingly evolving sense of what the flag means to Southerners today. You see signs that in some places racism—and the Confederate flag, racism’s lightning rod—is slowly, one hopes inevitably, migrating to the fringe. That vestiges of the old south are slowly being put behind us in the face of the objections of empowered black people, a growing acceptance of the unacceptability of bigotry, and in recognition of southern economic self interest. And as is always the case with such emotional issues, it’s whack-a-mole politics; racism becomes more subtle and die-hard defenders go underground. It’s a slow, two-steps-forward-one-and-a-half-steps-back.

Confederate flag houseYou’d think I’d be able to find some folks who espouse traditional southern views in RV parks around the South! (Most of our new RV friends turn out to blue-leaning folks from red states.) But except for the students at the Spider Martin exhibit, none of the folks I’ve asked about the meaning of the Confederate flag have been willing to get into a good discussion about it—not that I expected them to, it can be so personal. But controversy does bubble up around it. You’ll read news reports with comments by a white defender of the flag, saying it represents pride in one’s heritage and a sincere belief in distinctive southern values; then you’ll hear from offended African Americans. The journalist usually wraps up with a bland expression of the conventional wisdom that it’s time to put the flag away, that it’s offensive. (Less mainstream, but still grabbing attention, are those that defend the righteousness of the Confederate cause or claim the flag as—of all things—a Christian symbol.)

Confederate flagIt seems odd to talk about the impact of the Civil War now, it was so long ago. But I suspect the time scale is different down here—unless you grew up here, you probably don’t have a sense of how long it took the South to recover, not just from the devastation and loss of wealth in the war, but from economic policies that favored the North long, long afterward. Unlike more recent victories, when the Union won the war it didn’t turn around and rebuild the “country” it had conquered. Lack of investment to diversify an agrarian economy helped drive continued hardship and isolation from the North. Change was slow in coming; poverty and ignorance are a breeding ground for resentment and bigotry. For a proud people it can be tempting to yearn for a romanticized past.

Confederate flags dogThe flag hasn’t always had an overtly racist message; it’s represented different ideals for different people over time. What we know as the Confederate flag was originally one of many southern battle flags; between the Civil War and the 1930s, it was mostly just used as a memorial symbol. Then, for the next 20 years or so, it was adopted by southern college students and some southern military units in World War II as a symbol of regional identity (though over the objection of black soldiers. Did you know that after the US took Okinawa, a Marine initially raised a Confederate flag over Shuri Castle, before it was replaced by the US flag?)

Confederate flag carIn the early 50s, displaying the rebel flag on your front porch became a brief, inexplicable fad. Its good old white boy overtones were supposed to be about regional pride when displayed at Ole Miss football games. And it’s debatable how racially charged the symbol was when emblazoned on the roof of a Dodge Charger in the 1970s’ Dukes of Hazzard, or when it has been used as the flag of country music, Southern Rock, and Sweet Home Alabama.

Spider Martin, Confederate flagBut early in the civil rights movement the rebel flag was adopted by segregationists who held on tight to the Jim Crow status quo. Anti-integration college students waved it as they fought the National Guard. South Carolina began flying the flag over the state capitol in 1962, and it stayed until the end of the century. I remember the news when it was finally moved to a nearby Confederate memorial.

The flag’s racist associations were solidified when it was adopted as a symbol of hatred for minority groups and resistance to government by the KKK and the Aryan Nation. And more recently by Christian fundamentalists who argued that those who want to ban the Confederate flag are committing “cultural genocide” against the South, claiming it would lead to “feeding the Constitution to a shredder.”

Confederate flagBut while the flag represents a whole spectrum of attitudes and ideals to southern whites, black folks are unified in their perception. It represents slavery and white supremacy, and the fact that it’s still displayed a century and a half after the end of the Civil war is proof that racism is still very much with us.

As I said at the top, perceptions are slowly evolving. Economics are playing a big part; Southern interests have recognized racism as being bad for business. As some states have tried to put that reputation behind them, they’ve been successful in attracting companies to the region with cheap labor, a low cost of living, and a mostly non-union workforce. And tourism has been a boon to the South; states are attracting visitors by marketing warm climates and unique cultures. South Carolina moved the Confederate flag off the state house in 2000; OK, they didn’t move it very far. Now some are trying to remove it altogether. (In Mississippi though, the people voted not to redesign the state flag, which has a Confederate flag in one quadrant. Some here say the “ugly history” of the flag keeps big business away; others say they’re doing just fine keeping their long-held traditions.) The DMV in Texas, a state not known as a hotbed of liberality, rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ proposed specialty license plate because the flag made it “offensive.” (The SCV filed suit; the Supreme Court heard arguments recently on the case and will rule this summer.) Change happens.

Confederate flag waversMy own feeling now—as a non-Southerner who is hopefully a little better informed than I used to be—is that it’s not a black and white issue; many people have sincere associations of pride and heritage in the Confederate flag. Furthermore, sectional perceptions run very deep. Northerners tend to have simplistic, generalized beliefs about Southerners, lumping them together as holdouts for the past.

That said, no one who flies the flag can be unaware of its hateful symbolism. No matter how benign the intent, flying it communicates a racist, violent message and is itself a callous, aggressive, even malevolent act. But it’s better not to assume we know what the Confederate flag means for those who display it. I’m one who wants to believe that talking and finding common ground will eventually build understanding and empathy—and change behavior.

Confederate flag trailerBut you and I both know you can’t change someone’s mind with facts and well-reasoned arguments. We need a continued push against the backward slide in legal protections for equal rights, and constant pressure to expose prejudice. We must keep growing the majority who not only recognize the essential morality of equal rights, but are willing to confront racism in all its forms. Only then will we squeeze a little more bigotry out of each new generation. And only then can an icon—like a flag—simply represent a past wrong that we have been able to overcome.


*The two black and white photos are by Spider Martin; I shot them as they were displayed at the Bloody Sunday commemoration at Francine Delany New School for Children.

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