Confederate flag battles just aren’t worth the hassle anymore

Dave Russell
• published March 22, 2009

There are a few topics that letters editors hate to see pop up on their Opinion pages. One of those is the display of the Confederate battle flag and what it means, because it means a lot of different things to different people. Some see it as a symbol of treason, others heritage and loyalty, and others see it as a symbol of hate.

Down here in the South, we don’t talk about that treason business much. We seem to divide into two camps — the heritage camp and the hatred camp.

Most folks who display the flag on vehicles or clothing will tell you it’s about heritage, not hate. That it’s a symbol of devotion, loyalty and bravery, and that most of the men who went into battle under it did so to fight for states’ rights and were not slave owners, etc. Quite often they’re indignant toward those who see the flag otherwise, and the discussion invariably winds down to this question: Was the Civil War about slavery or was it not?

Time brings changes

When it comes to discussion of the Confederate flag as a symbol, that argument doesn’t matter a whit, no matter how loudly it is proclaimed or repeated. Maybe for a while after the Civil War a case could be made that the Confederate flag was a symbol of loyalty and courage. But symbols change over time.

As a symbol, the Confederate flag changed when Strom Thurmond used it as a backdrop for his presidential run as a Dixiecrat in 1948, preaching segregation with generous doses of the “n-word” peppered into his oratory. It changed when the KKK adopted it as a symbol and when groups such as neo-Nazis and the Aryan Nation and other hate-groups use it.

Just about 100 miles down the highway in Laurens, S.C., it hangs on the wall of The Redneck Shop along with the flags of the KKK and the SS of the Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s “Protective Squadron.” It also appears on a shoulder patch, intertwined with the Klan flag, and the words “OHIO INVISIBLE EMPIRE.” Ohio doesn’t have a history with the Confederate battle flag other than shooting at it or running from it. There’s not a bit of heritage or history in that usage, just hate.

Boiling it down

No matter how it was perceived before — as a symbol of treason, slavery, bravery, loyalty, states’ rights — it has been given a whole new meaning. And at the root of that meaning is, let’s face it — hate.

I am about as Southern as can be. My Scots-Irish Russell ancestors settled in what is now Rutherford County back in the 1700s. I drink only sweet tea when I have tea.

And it doesn’t matter who is doing the singing — The Band, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez or Johnny Cash — when I hear the first strains of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” by the time they get to “… ‘til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again,” I have a lump in my throat. I’m Southern enough that when I hear an ESPN radio talk show host dismiss comments by Boston Red Sox pitcher John Papelbon, by saying “… you can say ‘he’s a Southerner and go on,’” I get furious.

No place for it

But the Confederate flag is not part of my Southern identity anymore. You won’t find it on my car, my clothes or waving above my house. It has been hijacked by too many people who wish to use it as a divisive, hateful symbol and I want no part of that.

I would never deign to tell others what to think of the Confederate flag or how to display it. It is a symbol protected by the First Amendment, no doubt.

But I will say this — no matter how you view the Confederate flag, don’t get all irate and preachy when others see it differently. The Confederate flag is viewed in a lot of ways — not all of them good — because it has been used in a lot of ways — not all of them good.

Copyright © 2009

On The Web: