When I was sixteen, I believed that the Civil War had been fought primarily over the abstract issue of states’ rights—the rights of the states to determine their own course without too much interference from the federal government. I remember defending this position in a vague way, and I marshaled what I thought of as evidence to support it. I had learned all of it from my rural Arkansas history teacher. And while I was no particular lover of the Confederate battle flag, the idea that it might represent something other than slavery and hatred for some Southerners held purchase. The flag had permeated my entire childhood—it was on license plates and in the rear windows of pickups and on front lawns—and it could have represented for me the men who fried my fish at family cookouts or listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd or stopped on the side of the road to change my mom’s flat tire. I had a Dukes of Hazzard T-shirt when I was a kid. The flag was connected to the world I knew: mundane, functional, not rent asunder by evil. It seemed, at worst, a benign appendage of history that had lost its connection to anything real. The fact that my small town was overwhelmingly white had a lot to do with this.
I read more, and learned more, and got smarter. I left Arkansas. When the massacre of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church on June 17 led to a nearly universal cry in Charleston, and elsewhere, to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, I was a little shocked to remember that it was, in fact, still there.
I was more shocked to realize that, in 2015, the battle flag still has its defenders. I’m not sure why some white people console themselves with lies about the Civil War, the South, and the flag, but they do. Among the most often repeated, as the South Carolina House of Representatives continues its debate over whether to remove the flag from the State House grounds, where it still flies by law, is that doing so won’t accomplish anything more than disrespecting the Confederate dead. “Removing this flag from out front is not going to do anything to change this nation,” Lee Bright, one of three Republican state senators who voted no on the issue in the state’s Senate, said, according to The New York Times. “All we’re going to do is disrespect these 20,000-plus men, black and white, who fought to defend your state.” This idea—that there were black Confederates fighting for the South of their own free will—is another lie Lost Causers tell themselves.
That history is complicated and unchangeable is inarguably true, but the idea that the flag represents anything other than hatred is demonstrably false. The Confederate soldiers who defected and fought against their own country were supporting the indefensible institution of slavery, whether they were personally slaveholders or not. More important, the flag that adorned my childhood, and is still waving in Columbia, is not the official flag of the Confederate States of America and was never a flag that represented the Southern states, united in some form of Dixie sisterhood that was more about cultural affinity than it was about oppressing an entire class of people. It was a flag flown by a few regiments in the Civil War but widely popularized later by the Ku Klux Klan, and was raised throughout the South in response to the spread of civil rights and black political representation, both during Reconstruction and in the fifties and sixties.
Which means that the flag represents not only past institutionalized hatred—slavery, the bloody aftermath of emancipation, Jim Crow, lynching—but a hatred that is still with us. The massacre at Mother Emanuel evoked other violence in black churches that are within living history, most especially the bombing in 1963 of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls. Those girls, aged eleven to fourteen, were around my mom’s age at the time. If they’d lived, they’d be about ready to retire now, as my own mom is. They might have had daughters who would have been my age now, peers I’ve never met, and would likely have young children of their own. That they aren’t here—that they aren’t grandmothers rocking away a hot summer on some Southern porch, in peace—should be enough of a reminder that the hatred represented by the Confederate flag is part of a painful present and absent future.
In the early days after the shooting, when the focus of the nation so quickly fixated on removing the flag from the State House grounds in South Carolina and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere, I thought it a worthy cause, but wondered whether this wasn’t too easy a solution, one that would enable us to avoid tackling the bigger issues of racism and gun control. The fact that weeks have passed since the shooting, that there has been an actual debate, that three members of the state’s Senate voted not to lower the flag, and did so while standing in the same chamber where a desk draped in black marked the death of their colleague, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who died in Mother Emanuel, and that the final votes won’t even be unanimous, shows how critical an issue the Confederate flag actually is.
Symbols are important, and the flag is so strong a symbol that it constitutes an assault on its own, even if a murderer hadn’t decided to wave it. But the most insidious aspect of the Confederate battle flag is its prevalence. That Walmart, Amazon, and other big retailers moved so quickly to stop selling merchandise bearing its image is therefore significant. Seeing the flag everywhere, every day, helps in some ways to obscure its true meaning. People see it and understand it in a thoughtless way, as if it were just a graphic representing a certain kind of boot-wearing life. Now those who want to fly it will have to work a little harder, and their ties will be a little more obvious.
It has been genuinely touching to watch the community of Charleston and the country as a whole reject the Charleston murderer, Dylann Roof, and his actions, and to see how swiftly he was brought to justice. This is an important difference from 1963. But lowering the flag from the State House grounds in Columbia—or removing its corner of the Mississippi state flag, or tackling other symbols of the Confederacy—is not enough. In his manifesto, Roof showed himself to be not just a racist hatemonger, but, in a few places, an uncomfortably keen observer of human behavior. “Now White parents are forced to move to the suburbs to send their children to ‘good schools,’” he wrote. “They tell themselves it is for better schools or simply to live in a nicer neighborhood. But it is honestly just a way to escape niggers and other minorities.”
If the South Carolina legislature removes the flag, which it could do this week, let’s not pat ourselves on the back and move on, telling ourselves a new set of lies about what is racist and what is not. The president of the College of Charleston is still a Civil War reenactor, and while he has agreed the flag should be taken down, he defends other Civil War monuments. North Charleston, the city just north of the church where the shooting took place, is the same town where Walter Scott was shot in the back by the police officer Michael Slager while fleeing potential arrest and a criminal justice system that had burdened him with unpayable child support bills. It’s not clear to me that people in South Carolina and elsewhere see the criminal justice system, rampant poverty, the recent high-profile cases of police violence, and Roof’s actions as part of the same racist and oppressive system, and these are things removing the flag won’t change.
The post Why the Confederate Flag Must Be Removed appeared first on Vogue.
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