This should be an easy call for everyone: the battle flag of the Confederate States of America is a symbol of traitors who went to war against their own country with the primary goal of preserving their ability to buy and sell human beings as property. I don’t understand why that flag has been treated with respect anywhere since the day Lee surrendered to Grant.
This was never an issue for me as a kid: either we lived in New York, Ohio or Minnesota where I don’t remember ever seeing the Stars and Bars displayed, or we lived in Alabama and Texas but I was too young to understand what the flag symbolized, or how often one would see it flying. I admit, ashamedly, that once I was old enough to understand, I didn’t think much of it: so what if a neighboring high school was named after Robert E. Lee, and their mascot was the Rebels, and the Confederate battle flag was their flag. It didn’t register for me, meant nothing.
The first time I experienced cognitive dissonance over the display of Confederate symbols was when I arrived at college, at The University of Texas at Austin, in the fall of 1975. Suddenly there were a lot of places where people were very seriously, and very publicly, paying homage to the men who provoked a war with America over the issue of slavery.
Mostly for me, it was the statues. The South Mall, just beyond the plaza in front of the Main Building—the Texas Tower—features heroic statues of three icons of the Confederacy: CSA president Jefferson Davis, and army generals Robert E. Lee and Albert S. Johnston (plus CSA postmaster general John Reagan). They were put there in the early 20th century, along with a statue of President Woodrow Wilson and one of former Texas Governor James Hogg, in conjunction with the Littlefield Fountain, all envisioned as a grand entry to the university and a memorial for the university students who died in World War I, which in the sculptor’s view was the beginning of real healing after the Civil War since it was the first time Americans from all across the country started to act as citizens of the same country again. There was also supposed to be a statue of George Washington that didn’t get finished in time due to finances, and it was later placed nearby. (A good short history of the UT statues is here, in a recent article in the Austin Chronicle.)
You put up a statue of someone, you’re honoring them and what they did and stood for in their lives. For me, one day on the South Mall, I finally thought, why the hell is my university honoring traitors? Racist traitors? Why do we in Texas name streets and schools and public buildings after these people? The fountain nearby (pictured) has an inscription memorializing those who died in WWI, and a second inscription recognizing another conflict:
To the men and women of the Confederacy, who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ rights be maintained and who, not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule, builded from the ruins of a devastating war a greater South and to the men and women of the nation who gave of their possessions and of their lives [so] that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth this memorial is dedicated.
Just a few more blocks to the south, on the grounds of the state capital, there’s a Confederate Soldiers Monument, and another to the 8th Texas Cavalry known as Terry’s Texas Rangers. What the f***?
The shooting deaths of nine people in a Charleston church last week, by a young man who used the Confederate battle flag as part of his symbology of white supremacy, has sparked (seemingly from out of nowhere) a lot of discussion about the propriety of governmental display of these symbols of racism , and caused me to consider the issue. Let me be clear about my position.
I’m not saying that all the Confederate flags and all the statues of all the Confederate “statesmen” and generals, and all the memorials to the Confederate soldiers, should be banned or removed or destroyed. I’m not suggesting we pretend that the Civil War didn’t happen; we need museums and displays that can tell the story in context.
I am saying, those people were wrong to enslave their fellow men and women and children, and they were wrong to try to secede from the United States so they could continue to do so; they lost the war they started, which cost their part of the country most dearly in lives and treasure. And we as a people, as a nation, as state institutions, should not be seeming to honor them and their actions by displaying their flag. As individuals, you or I can fly any flag we choose, for whatever reason; but there is no reason I can think of that any government entity in the United States should make any prideful display of the symbols of a failed racist rebellion.
And let’s be clear about the motives: the states of the Confederacy fought that war to protect their ability to engage in human slavery. Ta-Nahesi Coates has the goods in a recent article in The Atlantic.
The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.
And examine it he does, using the words of the secessionists to deny any modern-day claim that the Confederacy was not about preserving slavery.
- South Carolina: “…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.”
- Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…”
- Louisiana: “As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
- Texas: “…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….”
You get the idea. Civil War documentarian Ken Burns backs up the argument; South Carolina state senator Paul Thurmond, son of famous racist and Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, says the “heritage” some claim to be glorifying is nothing to be proud of.
All the talk of “state’s rights” is just polish on the pig: the right that the Confederate States of America was trying to protect was the right to own other human beings. Their agricultural economy depended on free labor in the fields and in the master’s house. Those people fought a war to maintain slavery in this country; that’s not worthy of our respect, and neither is their flag.