Give the Confederate flag a break

The Stars-and-Bars is a diversion in the nation’s fight for racial harmony
Jaime O’Neill
Sunday, April 29, 2007

One Sunday morning shortly after the Civil War ended, Robert E. Lee attended church in Richmond, Va. On that morning, a black man shocked the congregation by making his way to the communion rail where he knelt to take communion. In that time, in that place, this simply was not done. The congregation held back. The church took on the silence that descends at moments of extreme discomfort. No one else came forward to join the black man. The minister was clearly embarrassed, unable to decide how to proceed.

And then Robert E. Lee, defeated defender of those Southern states newly returned to the larger union, came forward and knelt beside the black man to participate in the key sacrament of his faith. Following Lee’s example, other members of the congregation slowly began to make their way toward the communion rail to kneel together with a former slave and their former military commander.

Two rare acts of moral courage on a long-ago Sunday morning down in Dixie, one black, one white.

I was reminded of this story by a brief skirmish over the Confederate flag that arose at Thursday night’s debate among the Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina. It wasn’t the first time. Back during the 2004 Democratic presidential primary when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he wanted to reach out to American Southerners who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag stickers on their bumpers. He caught hell for saying so. Al Sharpton, whose wit and passion are often admirable, said: "If I were to say that I wanted to be the candidate for guys with swastikas, I would be asked to leave the race." It was a disingenuous remark by a man who sometimes slips back into the rhetoric of automatic outrage.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt chimed in, too, taking his own lick at the front-runner. "I will be," he said, "the candidate for guys with American flags in their pickup trucks." The Democratic Party, according to some, no longer has room for poor white trash, or for those who fly a flag Sharpton would equate with the swastika.

Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were once more in full moral dudgeon this month, fulminating about the impossibly overwrought Don Imus affair, a national upheaval of automatic outrage of the kind we seem programmed to experience about three times a year. I won’t bother repeating the words Imus uttered that got him fired and got everyone else all fired up, but suffice it to say, those words — as offensive as they were — are surely no worse than stuff routinely flowing through the talk radio sewer, or being blasted from booming automobile speakers playing rap and hip-hop to thoughtless youth.

Imus got busted for trying to be hip. Hipness, especially for a man of Imus’ vintage, often originated in the black community. For nearly a century now, the language that determines what’s hip, slick and cool comes from the ‘hood (case in point), and Imus was tapping into that, as he has done for years, trying to look cool by wrapping his thin lips around language that was, most demonstrably, not his own.

And yes, he also has been known to wink and nod at those in his audience he knew were racists because ignorance is part of the demographic of any drive-time blatherfest. But the hypocrisy attendant to his condemnation was the real story there, as people crowded onto the national stage to proclaim their moral superiority, flash their creds as defenders of tolerance, and throw around the B.S. we always seem to trot out when one of these episodes snatches the media’s wandering attention — all the "healing" and "dialogue" stuff that must spin through the cycle before we load up new dirty laundry for its little tumble.

And so it goes, in the words of recently departed Kurt Vonnegut, a wry commentator on human folly in all its guises whose leavening humor and wisdom will be sorely missed in a nation fairly bereft of both qualities. And nowhere is that wisdom and humor needed more than in our bogged-down-in-B.S. attitudes toward race, wherein we continue to countenance unequal schools and a vast disparity in opportunity while arguing about words and old flags.

Some of my forebears fought under the Confederate banner that is, once more, causing a tempest in a tea cup as Rudy Giuliani tries to figure out what he thinks about that symbol in the context of his bid to head up the Republican ticket in ’08. As a nation, we have bigger fish to fry, but this one keeps flopping back into the boat, and so presidential wannabes all have to kill it and cook it up, and see if their recipe will be swallowed by the pundits and the electorate.

Although I had ancestors who fought under the Stars and Bars, I’ve yet to find one of them who owned slaves. I suppose I could take offense at people who would make my great-great-great uncles into the equivalent of the Nazis that my more modern uncles fought against in Normandy, but I’m inclined to let it go. It’s just political grandstanding, and whichever way these political winds blow will have no bearing on the daily lives of Democratic voters, black or white.

The vast majority of soldiers who fought for the South owned no slaves, and most of them were fighting not for slavery, but for the principle of state’s rights, an issue that is still the focus of much controversy. Between 60,000 and 90,000 black men, both free and slave, also served under the banner of the Stars and Bars.

One such soldier, a free black man from Louisiana wrote: "The free colored population love their home, their property, their own slaves and recognize no other country than Louisiana, and are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for Abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana. They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought in 1814-15."

And Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate hero and later founder of the Ku Klux Klan, had both slaves and black freemen serving in units under his command. Of them, he wrote: "These boys stayed with me … and better Confederates did not live." Nazis, all, those boys.

By our standards, black Confederates were misguided, or scoundrels, or the victims of coercion, but there they are, historically, southerners and Americans, too, people of color, most of them poor, who fought beneath that much-hated banner.

And, it should be remembered that the Union flag, the Stars and Stripes, flew over the entire nation before 1861, and that flag, too, symbolized a slave-holding nation. That flag, plus a few stars, is the flag we still salute at ball games and at parades.

Other flags throughout the world are likewise sullied with histories of slavery. The first slaves in the Americas were offloaded from ships that flew the Union Jack, but slave ships also carried Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and French banners. Slave trading was the basis of various Islamic economies before boundaries were drawn, states established and flags designed, but those countries, too, carry a heritage of slavery, and some, like Somalia and Sudan, still practice it. If flags symbolize all the acts done under them, perhaps all flags should come down because none is without stain.

People’s sensitivities should be respected, of course, and I’m sure that there are many black people who are affronted by the sight of the Confederate flag. Nonetheless, a recent survey disclosed that most young black people associated the flag with "The Dukes of Hazzard," a cartoonish TV show many of them had grown up with. Such is our national ignorance of history that the flag does not carry much historical significance for young people of either color, most of whom cannot name the century in which the Civil War was fought.

Any country music concert you might attend will be festooned with that flag, either in the parking lot, or in the apparel of those attending, whether the group appearing is Alabama, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith or the Dixie Chicks. Does that mean that all those people are professing a belief in the rightness of slavery? Are they all racists?

I once saw a young white mother wearing a Stars and Bars blouse at such a concert, escorted there by the black father of their two scampering children. Which member of that couple was missing the point? Which parent was unclear on the concept?

Maybe neither. Maybe there has been a paradigm shift since the 1960s. Just check out Montel Williams, Maury Povich or "The Jerry Springer Show" if you want to see where the races are currently coming together most commonly. For those people, the flag doesn’t symbolize slavery, but a heritage of defiance, a fierce regional pride, and a thumbing of the nose to those who persist in looking down at people like them with unearned superiority.

As it happens, my family lived in a trailer park way back in the piney woods of Florida during part of the time I was growing up. There were some, no doubt, who thought of us as poor white trash. But my parents were lifelong Democrats, hardworking blue collar people, and their adherence to the Democratic Party had everything to do with their knowledge that the interests of working people had always been better tended by Democrats than by Republicans.

There was a time when the Democratic Party didn’t sneer at people like my parents. Because of that sneering, lots of people like them have left the party over the last 40 years, most voting against their own best interests rather than join forces with people who look down at them. Howard Dean was right when he sought to win them back.

Robert E. Lee fought in the interest of a bad cause, but he, too, was an American, as noble as any who has ever drawn breath, or knelt down to pray. The character of a man like Robert E. Lee would put to shame millions of faux patriots who have, since his time, wrapped themselves in the banner he fought against. A man like Robert E. Lee would put to shame a whole lot of self-righteous liberals and dim-witted rappers when it comes to defending human dignity.

Though the Confederate flag remains an easy target for politicians looking to take cheap shots, the heritage represented by that flag is far from simple. Though it retains negative power, there surely is not a soul left on the planet who waves that flag in support of slavery. Voters whose ancestors gave their lives under that banner should not be written off by the party that has, historically, best defended their interests.

But this discussion will all come around again, in three months or six months, when someone says something that invites us all to feel superior and allows us to engage once more in the ritual of empty rhetoric that is our continuing national dialogue on race.

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