Burning the Confederate Flag is Not the Answer

The following post was written by dogsmycopilot. I really appreciate her contribution to this complex issue.

When the Mississippi Atheists blog announced Burn the Confederate Flag Day I was actually pretty shocked. Before that I would have thought the atheist community a bit more informed than that. But why? Why would I think that when over fifty years of indoctrination has taught people that flag = racism? In the words of Clyde Wilson, Southern gentleman and professor, “History gives you your symbols- you cannot make them up.” Modern day skinheads wear crosses, arguably a symbol of great torture and pain, should we burn them? To say the Confederate flag needs burning is to be ignorant of a huge piece of history and what that history really means to the people of the region. It’s too big a symbol for that narrowed treatment. And why this particular flag? Why not the Bonnie Blue, which flew above some of the first battles of the war. Or the Van Dorn battle flag, it too was used by Confederates?

BonnieblueWonder what the flag meant to the Marines of the Fifth Regiment as they raised the Confederate flag over Shuri Castle in Okinawa after an intense and desperate battle? I doubt they had racial implications in mind. Or the men aboard the USS Columbia, which flew the flag throughout combat in the South Pacific. Somehow I don’t think they were showing their solidarity with slavery or racism. What about Sheldon Vanauken? He often used a placard with the Confederate flag on it and “Confederates for civil rights” on the other side. What did the symbol mean to him? For me the flag is identification with ancestors and a symbol of the struggle to remain an individual against forces that compel compliance. What about Southern black people and their heritage (if they so choose to claim it.) Should they be looked down upon for embracing the flag? What about Mr. Earnest Griffin, a black man, who owns part of the land that once held the Camp Douglas prison. He flies the Confederate flag in remembrance of the some 6000 men who died there of various diseases, exposure, and neglect.

Few things have inspired the hatred and disgust that slavery and racism does. Neither of those things is native only to the American South. Slavery, unfortunately, continues to this day. It was never about race, either. Many a white slave was traded. Slavery was not at all uncommon in the American North, the northerners were not free of racism, and Lincoln did not free the slaves. All those are myths. If you are curious to read up on a better, more precise treatment of this than a blog post can manage I implore you to turn to Walter Kennedy’s Myths of American Slavery. The recognition that slavery is and was a horrid institution is not the same as understanding the entire story around it. The winners assert that the North fought for human equality while the South fought to uphold slavery even at the cost of the Union, but it’s just not the truth. Truth has been hidden in myth, a very successful myth judging by people’s willingness to burn that symbol as though burning it will wipe out that horrid institution. But it won’t. The best thing we can do for those who suffered slavery is to not let its real story be forgotten. Not a single slave ship ever flew that Confederate flag. Once we got free of Britain it was our American flag on those ships, ships that came and went from northern ports. The largest slave ports were up in Rhode Island where the slaves (and rum) built the economy. New York and Philadelphia were the largest trading markets, yet as early as 1774, the Carolinas had passed a law banning the importation of slaves. The subject of racism is even more complex. Most of the people who opposed slavery did not do so for reasons of equality.

confederate flagNone of this is new to previous generations of Americans. Only in the last fifty years or so has this concerted effort to rewrite the history of my fellow southerners been embraced. Only since the Dixiecrat Party of the late forties has this myth become firmly entrenched in the American psyche. It’s no great leap to say a war the size of the Civil War had no single and simple cause. Until the Civil War this country was based on a Union made up of people who chose to be in it. Some of those people decided that they no longer wanted to be in with the other people and tried to leave. That attempt to leave was met with an attack. Attacks that wrought destruction on blacks and whites alike. The very right to rise up and shake off the shackles of a government no longer embraced by the people and to form a new one, the very same right Madison and Washington took, was denied to the South. We are no longer a Union by choice and it’s that resistance that the Confederate Battle Flag represents to so many. Resistance against a government that is far away and hard of hearing.

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