Confederate flag display ignores the complexities of our heritage

Friday, June 6, 2008

Here they come. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has started putting up Confederate flags in Florida.

A big one — 30 feet high and 50 feet long — flaps in the wind in Eureka Springs, where Interstates 75 and 4 intersect between Orlando and Tampa.

On Tuesday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans hoisted the Rebel flag on a pole about as high as a 12-story condominium building.

"We have a couple of flags in this country. This is one of them," a member of the group told the Tampa Tribune.

The nation has one flag. The American flag.

The Confederate flag in Eureka Springs is the first of five the group wants to fly high in Florida to honor ancestors who fought for the South in the Civil War.

After Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, he praised the courage and commitment of the soldiers who fought four years under him.

But, Lee said, the war was over, and he implored people to devote themselves to the reunification of the nation.

Deep wounds were personal, not just national, however. So it took years for people in some families to accept reconciliation with the "Yankees" whose ancestors had come down into their states and left a wake of death and destruction.

In the 1970s, a portrait of Gen. Lee was on the living room wall of a great-aunt of mine. No Confederate flag was on display, though.

"The South Will Rise Again," declared bumper stickers on pickup trucks in Virginia in 1961, when I was a boy.

That was the first year of the Civil War Centennial, a four-years-long series of events that put serious focus on a war we Americans should never forget.

The centennial coincided with the civil rights revolution. It was an era when black people were still struggling to achieve rights denied them after the American Revolution and, again, after a tragic, bloody war that brought an end to slavery.

In the early 1960s, Confederate flags flew from some pickup trucks.

To me, a white boy who went to racially segregated public schools, the Rebel flags were resurrected and unfurled as a mean message to remind black people of history, and as a then-contemporary symbol of opposition to the extension of civil rights to black people.

Certainly, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans are not so naive that they don’t understand that many black people — as well as many people in other ethnic groups — see the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate and oppression aimed at black people.

Ignoring that reality, the Sons of Confederate Veterans contends the flag is a symbol of their pride in their heritage, not hate.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of travelers will see the huge Confederate flag above the treeline at the junction of I-75 and I-4. What will most of them think the Rebel flag means?

Heritage, not hate?

"It’s about honoring our ancestors and about celebrating our heritage. It’s a historical thing to us," John W. Adams told the St. Petersburg Times.

Adams is co-chairman of the flag display project for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization founded in 1896.

Count me among those who think Adams and many other members of the organization are truthful when they say the flag, to them, is a symbol of their respect for Confederate soldiers — not an intentional affront to anyone.

A complex mix of causes — with slavery at the center — led to the Civil War. So it is not surprising that complexity endures as contemporary Americans attempt to understand it.

In 2011, the Civil War Sesquicentennial will start. It will last until 2015. Controversy over the Rebel flag erected in Eureka Springs — the Hillsborough County Commission is searching for the authority to bring it down — is an early skirmish in what, unfortunately, could quickly unravel into a war of words, raw emotion and display of controversial symbols.

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, rather than flying the Confederate flag over Florida, could, instead, serve a helpful role in telling the multifaceted story of a war crucially important in the history of a nation.

© Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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