There Is No Such Thing As "The" Confederate FlagWebmaster's Note: In January 2000 the members of the Civil War Western Theater Discussion Group (CWWT) were having a discussion of whether or not it was right or wrong to display the "Confederate Flag" on government buildings. As usual discussions such as this get very quickly out of hand so I "hooked" the subject. In the meantime, a very good friend of mine, whom many knew as AoT on the Internet, and who was in real life Stephen Wakefield, was preparing a post. Since the subject had been "hooked" Steve sent me what he had written. I assured him that it would get read. I printed it out and filed it to be used later. Unfortunately "later" never came. Steve passed away on October 29, 2005 after losing his fight with cancer. While moving my office recently I came across the email that he had sent. The following are his thoughts as he wrote them and sent them to me.
First as to the public display of the "Confederate Flag " issue. On the surface this seems to be a fairly simple question but in reality I believe it is not one question but a series of questions. What is the confederate flag? Are we talking about private citizens displays of a confederate flag or are we talking about a governmental display of a "the" confederate flag and if so in what setting and with what intent is the flag being displayed? Finally is it reasonable for a person to take offense at the display of "the" confederate flag in the particular setting presented? If it is reasonable for one to take offense then why? Hopefully by now most everyone who has looked at the Civil War understands that there simply is no such thing as --"THE" CONFEDERATE FLAG.
We who study the Civil War, not the general public, know and understand that there were several OFFICIAL flags of the government of the Confederacy and a myriad of battle flags of the various military units that fought for southern independence in the War of the Rebellion (Yankee term) or the Second American Revolution (Confederate term). The vast majority of people do not recognize a Hardee or Polk Corps Battle flag as a symbol of the Confederacy and it seems to me you can display them to your hearts content and absolutely no offense is taken. This is also true of the "Bonnie Blue" flag, the Palmetto flag, Van Dorn flags, and on and on. In short there are scores of "Confederate flags" that are not recognized as such, can be proudly displayed and the great majority of people have no idea what the heck there are and certainly take no offense whatsoever. Knowing these facts it does create in my mind some question of what exactly is it that people or governments are trying to say when they display the so-called Confederate flag. But I will not go there except to say that it appears obvious to me that for knowledgeable people it is very very easy to display accurate and historically correct symbols of your southern heritage and never even get into this controversy... of course that assumes that you want to be correct and that you do not want to get into a controversy.
Do Individuals and States Have the Right to Display the Flag?
Having said all this the so-called "Confederate flag" that causes all the controversy is the naval flag (not even a battle flag because it is not square) Yes, I am speaking of the oblong St. Andrews Cross with 13 stars on a red background. First I find it a little strange that since this flag is not even THE CONFEDERATE FLAG (since there is no such thing) why so many advocates of southern heritage and ancestor worship get so indignant about their individual right to display this symbol, let alone about a state government's right in choosing to display such a symbol of questionable historical accuracy (more on that issue later). In my humble opinion both individuals as well as states have the right to fly any flag they want. I mean I can not tell you how many North Vietnam flags I saw individuals fly, display, etc . . . in the 60s and 70s and not once did I ever hear anyone say that those individuals had NO right to fly them. I heard plenty say it was stupid--- it was offensive--and in fact downright treasonous to do so but not that they individually did not have the right. Similarly I think that a state government acting through its particular system of government also has the "right" to fly whatever symbol it wants from its capitol or its governmental buildings. Having said this I also understand that individuals have the right to disagree with and dislike symbols that other individuals and states choose fly. They have the right to tell them they do not like their flags. They have the right to decide to ban together and to threaten to economically boycott an individual or a state because they do not like a flag the state or individual may chose to fly.
Just Because You Have The Right, Is It Smart to Exercise the Right?
Having said what I believe individuals and states rights are, the next question in my mind becomes is it a smart thing to exercise the right? This question is closely related to the next one but I will go ahead and deal with it now. Although one has a right to do something is it always smart to do it, even though it may offend other citizens? Well this I suppose is a pure value judgment, to be made by the individual or by the body politic of the state. I mean I drive a pick up truck and yes the truck has a gun rack! l know that some folks think that since I am a southerner, driving a pick up truck with a gun rack that means I am a Jeff Foxworthy fan and that I watch a lot of "fishing shows. In short I am aware that there are lots of folks out there that make assumptions about me because of what I drive and in the over-all scope of things I do not give a damn. I have decided that I do not care what those kind of people will think and because a pick up truck with a gun rack makes a lot of sense for me to drive. But I am also aware that no one is offended by my driving a pick up truck and that if they were they would be offended, in my honest opinion, they would just be being "unreasonable" or "overly sensitive".
Now I also have a bumper sticker on my truck and it says "I Do Not Like Bill Clinton" and I have been told that some people find that bumper sticker offensive. Well I do not care... I do not care because in my honest opinion if you find that offensive you are being overly sensitive and unreasonable. Kind of like I am when I see people with "I like Hilary" bumper stickers. . . But having said that I do not display bumper stickers that use curse words, foul language, or ethnic or regional based humor. Not because I do not find some very funny but because I recognize that they have the very real potential to cause reasonable people to be offended. I simply do not think it is either smart or right for me to offend reasonable people--even though in this country I have the undeniable right to do so.
Is It Reasonable For African-Americans To Be Offended By The Confederate Flag?
Having given this issue a lot of thought, this dyed in the wool unreconstructed rebel, has personally concluded that it is regrettable but very understandable for reasonable people to be offended by displays of "the" so-called Confederate flag.
Those that say that the Confederacy and its formation had nothing to do with slavery are I believe just being obtuse. The "state's rights" that were being fought for was the right to own slaves, the right to be an agricultural system based in part upon slavery. The United States constitution recognized this right and a large portion of Southerners, rightly or wrongly, decided that the new Republican Party was going to deny them that right. So acting though their republican form of government they exercised what they believed to be their right to leave the Union and try to form their own country. The points that caused the constant friction between the north and south were at their root slavery. For Southerners many, many historical facts can be cited that quite correctly establish that the Southerners of the 1850s were not the creators of the evil of human slavery in North America. Africans enslaved Africans and sold people to Spanish/Portuguese, English, French, and yes, Northerner slave traders. These same traders transported and sold for profit human beings to Southerners. These same traders took some of those profits and developed commercial and industrial systems which in the 1850s developed the political systems that demanded the abolition of slavery. For centuries the bible had been cited and relied upon by many Christians, throughout the world as providing a clear message condoning slavery. ( See Genesis 9:25-27) In the Arab world it had long been considered that black people were simply born into slavery by virtue of their skin color. Every Empire to that time, had condoned and adopted human slavery. Furthermore very historically accurate arguments can be made that by 19th century standards -the Southern United States slavery system was unusually humane when judged by the times. First unlike the slave system in Latin America and in the Caribbean, Southern slaves mortality rates where much closer to their masters. Also the Southern system included female slaves. This fact is Interesting because the importation of female slaves into the Caribbean and Latin America was very very uncommon. Slaves in the mining and sugar operations to the south were for one thing and one thing only - labor and labor could not be provided by children. It was much cheaper to work your slave to death and then import another than to provide a cradle to grave support system. Statistics demonstrate that Cotton harvesting and cultivation was simply not as inherently dangerous and deadly as the milling and sugar production utilization of slaves in Latin America. Additionally the importation of slaves into the US ceased by operation of the Constitution in 1808. This is a significant fact because it provided very strong economic inducement to preserve the slave assets by not over working or killing same though purposeful mistreatment because the supply was limited and thus the price of this form of labor was rising- an undeniable economic incentive that was not present in England or in the North - where the cost of so-called free labor continued to go down with the tidal wave of immigrants from Ireland and Central Europe. A fact the also can be used to argue that slavery was fast becoming an outmoded economically noncompetitive method of obtaining labor. All of these explanations and facts regarding the historical and theological context of the relative humane nature of Southern slavery notwithstanding--slavery was slavery. It simply was, and is, not right. In today's world I believe that it is very understandable that reasonable people find symbols of that slavery to be offensive.
How did "the" so-called Confederate flag become an offensive symbol to reasonable African -Americans? This one is easy . . . because post - Civil War generations of white racists made it a symbol of not slavery but of deprivation of rights, white racial superiority, and intimidation. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) of the early 20th Century ( not to be confused with the immediate post war organization which was different and had a totally different political and social agenda) adopted this flag, along with the burning cross as its symbols. This 20th Century Klan hated Catholics, Jews, Blacks and all kinds of other folks and things. This 20th century Klan were, in my opinion, cowards and thugs who fought for their self declared higher place in society not by facing heavy odds in open warfare but by skulking around at night intimidating the frightened and the weak. Unlike the volunteers of the 19th century Southern states who proudly and openly wore their "Suits of Gray" for the whole world to see, these 20th Century Klansmen from throughout the US (Yes, the national HQ of the l920s Klan was in INDIANA) did not risk all that they owned and loved in a valiant, but unsuccessful, effort to fight for and win the right to create their own government. No, these 20th century thugs hid behind masks and traveled in packs and rather than expose their identities to the light of day. . .wore robes and sheets and lynched people. Then the sons of these early 20th century types in the 50s and 60s adopted the same symbols in their fight against school desegregation and racial integration.
Present day reasonable African-Americans I believe are offended by the so-called confederate flag not because it was the symbol allegedly carried by southern troops marching in Pickett's Charge in1863, but because it was the symbol being held by cheering on-lookers as civil rights marchers were being attacked by police dogs in Selma, Alabama in the 1960s. The so-called confederate flag which reasonable African-Americans find offensive is not the flag carried by Lee's troops at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 but rather the flag hoisted defiantly by George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Lester Maddox in the 1960s--- a flag which became the symbol for "segregation now and segregation forever". A flag which mysteriously began to appear on certain state flags not immediately after the Civil War, as a commemoration of the deeds of soldiers in gray, but rather in the 1950s--right at the time of the beginning rumblings of the Civil Rights movement.
In short, I have concluded that reasonable African - Americans have every right to be offended by the symbols of a burning cross and a so-called flag that was never even the real flag of the Confederacy, let alone a replica of the banner, that southern patriots fought under during their ill--fated struggle for independence.
So even though I think every one and every state has the right to fly whatever flag they want, why fly a flag that is quite likely to give offense to reasonable fellow citizens and is a flag that has little real historical significance to the armed forces of the Confederacy. Now a flag with appropriate battle honors, and correct shape I think is an entirely different situation. In fact I have 5 confederate flags on my pick-up truck-- the true stars and bars, the Bonnie Blue Flag, and three (3) Hardee Corps pattern battle flag reproductions-- 1st Arkansas, 2nd Tennessee, and 5th Confederate.
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