Take Down the Flag, Keep the History

By the time you read this, South Carolina will have most likely taken down the Confederate battle flag from its state capitol grounds (the bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Nikki Hailey will take effect at 10am on July 10). A recurring issue in South Carolina and other parts of the south the past few decades, the display of the Confederate flag gained much more attention in the past few weeks following the Charleston church shooting.

Opponents of the flag argue that it represents racism and white supremacy. Proponents claim that it represents southern heritage and pride that have nothing to do with slavery or racism. While there probably are many people that have non-racist reasons for displaying the flag–a rebellious spirit, an interest in history, tribute to ancestors–its racist connotations cannot be denied. The Confederate states were dedicated to protecting the institution of slavery. The flag wasn’t popular from the end of the Civil War until the 1940′s when the civil rights movement began. It then became part of the Georgia state flag in response to Brown v. Board of Education in the late 1950′s and went up in South Carolina in 1962 (it had been absent in the 97 years since the war ended and was not an official flag of the Confederate states or one that flew in South Carolina during the war: the current flag is one that only became popular in the 20th century for the foregoing reasons). Additionally, it represents a movement that waged war on the United States and failed. If you do not think that slavery was the basis for the Confederacy, read the official reasons for South Carolina’s secession here. Then read Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech. There is actually a statue of Stephens in the U.S. Capitol. It was a gift from Georgia which stopped short of having the statue extend its middle fingers.

The Confederate flag should be relegated to strictly historical context, as is the present policy of the National Park Service. Museums and the grave of Confederate soldiers are good places for it and it should be there. While it should no longer be raised on flagpoles, it should not be lowered from our history. The history of the United States–northern and southern states–is rife with racism. Slavery was legal in much of the country throughout colonial times and into the nineteenth century. The greatest paradox in American history is how a nation founded on the notion that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” was also founded simultaneously on the enslavement of black people. Even after slavery ended, legal segregation continued into the twentieth century. The greatest triumph of our country is how we transformed from a system of legal slavery and segregation to equal rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is in my opinion the most important piece of legislation in American history. Racism was always there and still is. Racist actions–from lynchings to segregation to people and states using the Confederate flag to intimidate and insult black people when segregation became illegal–are as important as integration. Americans must know that peaceful protesters were sprayed with firehouses and attacked by police dogs for marching for equal rights. They must also know that not all protests were peaceful. Why confederate flags flew during the Civil War and why they came back years later are integral to understanding integration and our nation’s history. It would be quite ironic if the removal of the Confederate flag had the effect of whitewashing that history.


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