Bearing the Southern Cross

By Emmarie Huetteman, Associate Editorial Page Editor on 1/23/08

Mike Huckabee is courting the Confederate vote. In an act of political pandering that would seem more commonplace in Mitt Romney’s campaign, the former Arkansas governor said Thursday that he supports the right of states to display the Confederate flag. Speaking to supporters in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Huckabee said, "If somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell ’em what to do with the pole."

The next day, HBO host Bill Maher asked his guest panel on "Real Time with Bill Maher" to comment on Huckabee’s remarks. Comedian D.L. Hughley replied that the Confederate flag "is always codename for ‘we hate niggers and fags still,’ always." But Southern author and fellow panelist Trace Adkins disagreed with Hughley, saying, "I’m supposed to be the redneck cracker here, and … I don’t know anybody that feels that way."

When it comes to the Confederate flag, it seems that the Mason-Dixon Line still demarcates an ideological disconnect.

To many Americans, the Southern Cross – as the battle flag of the Confederacy is often called – is bound within its original context, the Civil War. It represents little more than racist convictions as a banner under which white Southerners fought for the right to enslave black people. But to many Southerners, the flag has much to do with states’ rights and heritage and nothing to do with racism.

Having grown up in Georgia, I’ve seen a lot of Confederate paraphernalia. These days, the Southern Cross is more likely to adorn T-shirts, shot glasses and pickup truck windows than flagpoles. However, until 2001, my home state prominently featured the Southern Cross on its flag alongside the state seal.

That was also the year I realized that the Confederate flag didn’t mean racism to most Southerners. My class took an end-of-the-year trip to the Six Flags theme park in Atlanta, and as we wandered through the park, I saw countless Southern Crosses on tank tops and T-shirts. However, the strangest display of all was on a pair of socks – worn by a black man.

Despite having taken United States history in Georgia schools, my friends and I were slightly horrified and largely baffled by this man’s fashion choice. We trusted the winner’s version of the story, which opined that the good of the North had triumphed over the evil of the South. The Confederacy had fought to keep its slaves, the Union had fought to free them and there was nothing more to the story. And considering our knowledge of the civil rights movement, that version sounded pretty accurate.

What has largely been glossed over in that history, though, is that the South wasn’t just fighting for slavery; it was also fighting for states’ rights, as Huckabee crudely asserted. It fought for the right to make decisions independent of the federal government, even if the particular decision for which it stood was not one worthy of debate.

For many Americans, that is still a relevant cause, and supporting it has become a part of Southern heritage. In fact, the dispute over the Confederate flag itself has become a matter of states’ rights, most recently as presidential candidates like Romney have weighed in with their unfavorable opinions about the flag. But because the rest of the states – and, if my views are any indication, even some Southern ones – are teeming with anti-Confederate flag sentiment, it’s crucial that Southern Cross wavers and wearers make these true values known.

To their credit, the heritage and states’ rights arguments are more palatable than guttural chants of "the South will rise again!" Even as a big government liberal, I can appreciate this perspective. While I opposed keeping the Southern Cross on the Georgia flag in 2001, I certainly didn’t want the federal government to force the state to throw out, for better or worse, a symbol of its heritage. As much as I disagree with my fellow Southerners on a host of issues, they do have a right to their opinions.

However, even if Confederate flag enthusiasts were to endorse a kinder, gentler platform than "we’ll tell you what to do with the pole," it would still be a kinder, gentler argument for a symbol that most Americans deem purely racist. And as long as they deem it racist, they will largely be content seeing its supporters as racist, regardless of whether they are white men driving pickup trucks or black men wearing socks.

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