A recent YouTube video published by CNN on June 19, two days following the tragic mass shooting in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, asked, “Should the Confederate flag still fly?”
Responses varied greatly. Some see the Confederate Flag as a symbol of hatred, which merits its removal. Others see the flag in more nuanced ways, but they are open to taking it down for reasons that its history hurts African Americans.
One of the more intriguing comments came from an African American man who articulates the tensions in the Confederate Flag debate:
Although it may have been an ugly time in our history, it’s still a part of our history. And good or bad, we need to honor that part as part of our heritage….
I found myself thinking about which aspect of this statement were most astonishing. Whether to suggest that we should honor the bad. Or that the suggestion came from an African American. To couch this as a matter of honor would be akin to honoring (i.e., paying great respect to) 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, as if either deserves acclaim or esteem.
This man’s comments caused me to think about a controversy that engulfed Minister Louis Farrakhan several years ago. The Jewish community vehemently attacked the Nation of Islam leader who, during a March 11, 1984 interview with Mike Waller, referred to Adolf Hitler as a “great man“. Jewish outrage jumped on the comments without consideration that Minister Farrakhan expressly noted the colloquial use of the term “great” in the same manner that one might say a “great flood”, “great hurricane”, or “great catastrophe“. Indeed, the Scriptures warns of a “great falling away” [2 Thes. 2:3], that is, widespread apostasy that will occur in the last days. Great, from Minister Farrakhan’s vantage point, was to mean that Hitler was influential; something that a causal online search demonstrates that people do in-fact, understand.
The point here is that acknowledging greatness does not mean to honor a thing. But this distinction appears lost on those who support southern states that continue flying the Confederate Flag in prominent places.
Symbols have meaning. And while they are a part a historical narrative, the meaning of (or how we look at) that narrative speaks through our contemporary treatment of the symbol. Thus, a continued flying and honoring of the Confederate Flag is troublesome to say the least.
The connection of the Nazi Party with a flag that featured the infamous Hakenkreuz (swastika) finds its roots in the 1920s. In his 1925 book Mein Kampf , Hitler offered an explanation of the symbolism of the swastika flag: the red represents the social idea of the Nazi movement; the white disk represents the national idea; and the black swastika, used in Aryan cultures for millennia, represents “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of creative work.” This is an important observation as the heritage of the swastika pre-dates atrocities the world would later witness in the rise of a tyrannical Third Reich which did not unfold until 1933.
The swastika can be found in antiquity, including on Greek coinage dating back to 6th century B.C. This is only part of the history of the swastika that, in-reality, is connected to early century Christianity, 8th century B.C. Italy, Slavic paganism, and a host of other histories and heritages.
Those who support the heritage of the swastika could base their arguments on a time horizon that stretches from antiquity and reaches into various cultures of the world from Japanese to Etrucsan (Italy). That is, the association of Hitler’s genocidal regime was but a brief juncture in the long heritage of the symbol that was only known for hatred during a few years – 1933 to 1945 – despite a history that encompasses 3,000 years.
And yet, it is that decade of Hitler’s horror that now defines our treatment of the swastika. Broader histories pale in consideration as humane societies refine their culture around the sensitivities of their citizenry. A compassionate people seeks not to assert the more sublime uses of a thing, but rather distances itself from a thing that is also associated with painful realities – especially when a society continues to struggle in eradicating that pain.
Nations alter their flags to not only acknowledge structural changes, as in the case of Old Glory, but also (and arguably more importantly) to solidify a change in national sentiment. For instance, the flag of South Africa had flown over that country since 1928. Its adoption, however, marked a period of gross human rights violations associated with minority rule and systematic separation (apartheid).
In 1994, South Africa would for the first time in history conduct open general elections. As such, the meaning of that moment merited a change in symbolism so as to underscore the change in sentiment. Without the adoption of a new flag, the nation would likely have struggled between its laws and its cultural psyche (i.e., heritage).
The United States continued to struggle with these opposing influences after the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, where under the flag of the Confederacy and other symbols, the Night Riders, White Citizens Councils, Ku Klux Klan, and similar groups terrorized people of color to keep the latter from voting, drive blacks out of agricultural labor pools, and re-enforce a defacto caste system.
One might suggest that we consider the question of the Confederate Flag from a strictly philosophical (federalist versus states rights) perspective. Specifically, is the Confederate Flag a symbol of southern self-determination or an act of treason? This axis of inquiry is plausible. However, it need not the inclusion of symbolism to host constitutional conversations. Indeed, Capitol Hill deliberates on this on an ongoing basis without the need for moving a Confederate Flag into Congressional chambers.
The constitutional prism ignores social realities connected with the Confederate Flag. Namely, that it symbolized violent subjugation of America’s black population. For instance, the flag is prominently depicted on the logo of the White Citizens Council. Rendered along side of the U.S. Flag, it further suggests that white supremacy is the American Way; that is, a defining national narrative. To narrow that discussion to the realm of public policy (i.e., the framers’ intent of federal versus state power) would be to consider the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and its legitimate labor grievances, without consideration of symbolism eventually connected to harsh treatment of the Jews.
The heritage of the Nazi Party was as intertwined with racial superiority as America’s southern heritage (and quite frankly, its northern heritage in many respects) was intertwined with animus towards blacks. Whatever virtue that one might assign to it, southern heritage meant lynchings, burning crosses, shootings, unjust courts that denied basic human rights to people of color, voter suppression, separate and unequal educational systems, segregated public facilities, bombings, and myriad other evils.
Symbols reflect societal aspirations. Ask a Christian, “Why do you wear a Cross around your neck that reminders wood upon which Jesus Christ died?” and the answer is clear. Jesus Christ commanded his followers to live sacrificially. To take up our own cross and follow Him. [Matthew 16:24] Symbols embody our ideas and ideals.
Symbols reflect our values. The heritage argument is little more than a ruse to cloak a values problem – even when the ruse seduces some southern blacks to accept the symbolism. And as we’ve seen above, we reassess our symbols when we seriously reassess our values.
Miami University of Oxford, OH is one of many institutions that underwent such a reassessment by changing its mascot from Redskin to Redhawk. The university’s website summarizes the transition:
A national controversy has brewed for decades over the use of Native American mascots by athletic teams. Miami University was one of the many schools that chose to change its Native American image and nickname in the midst of this controversy. Much like many other places where similar controversies arose, emotions ran high on this issue and it was a long, arduous 25-year process that led to the change from Miami Redskins to Miami Redhawks. Over a century of time passed from the start of Miami’s first football game in 1888 until the name change occurred in 1997-98.
In an April 4, 1972 letter to the editor entitled, Redskins and Hiawabop: Racism at Miami, Miami professor of sociology anthropology, Dr. George Fathauer, argued that the institution’s continued use of the symbolism was:
“… one of the most pervasive aspects of racism; the dominant group is not even aware that its stereotyping is objectionable to a minority.
The heritage argument draws one into a heritage discussion at a time when a growing racial divide shapes our nation’s daily events. We have witnessed the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, TX – decapitated by white men who lived under the invisible weight of southern heritage. There, convicted killed Lawrence Brewer, whose arm adorned the familiar cross of that Confederate Flag, said in days leading up to his execution, “I would do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”
Southern heritage demanded that jurors give more deference to a live George Zimmerman than a dead teenager, Trayvon Martin. Southern Heritage excuses multiple deaths by hanging as suicide; ignoring the nearly 3,800 lynchings perpetrated by whites against blacks between 1882 and 1968. These conclusions respected the so-called virtues of southern traditions; a tradition that shaped the Dred Scott decision and the infamous words of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.
Ultimately, civilized societies consider the impact that its practices have on people over abstract concerns such as heritage; especially when the latter are connected to gross injustices. What society honors is what society seeks to preserve and promote. Consequently, to those that consider the Confederate Flag as something deserving of state honor, one must ask this question:
Are the values, structures, systems, and general culture that defined southern heritage something that you would want in today’s society?
Practical realities of southern politics place African Americans in a tenuous position. Since President Nixon’s southern strategy, conservatism has by-and-large defined southern political sentiments. One can readily confirm this by considering the few number of Democratic Party/liberal presidential candidates that have won the south over the past 40 years. Institutional activism that our nation witnessed in times past has subsided greatly. International concerns are piped into American households on a continuous basis, diverting attention from domestic tranquility.
So what are some more individualized, localized efforts that people might make to address the problem of southern states that continue to fly the Confederate Flag?
African Americans face considerable opposition to removing the Confederate Flag without a serious commitment to this outcome. One that tests the resolve of African Americans in no less manner than it tests the resolve of Confederate Flag supporters. And yet, a number of political pressures can (and should) be brought to bear where blacks and Confederate Flag opposition groups can use the leverage available to them.
One area is that of college athletes. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) relies significantly on the annual recruitment of African American athletes. These black players bring tremendous amounts of money to states that continue their “southern traditions” — flying Confederate Flag, playing Dixie music at games, and other practices that celebrate the dark days of overt subjugation of black citizens.
Black athletes, thus, have a significant opportunity to challenging hurtful and disrespectful practices by opting play in other athletic conferences until the south changes its official policies. A number of attractive alternatives exist in the north, east, midwest, and west; storied programs that launch professional careers. And it is time for black athletes and their families to seriously consider their previously forfeited power to influence the eradication of symbols that invisibly impact daily arrangements in the south even today and that potentially influence such twisted events as the Charleston, SC shooting at Emanuel AME Church.
This is not to suggest that other regions are racial panaceas. But open celebration of historical injustice is completely unacceptable. Consider this: for those who honor the Confederate Flag as southern heritage, what do you think Jews would say if Germany resurrected Nazi symbols on its public buildings? If what we expect would be the Jewish response is perfectly reasonable, why not more respond to an issue associated with 100 million Africans and 400 years of terrorism, kidnapping, rape, murder, and outright horrendous conditions?
To Caucasians, acquiescence the old tradition simply out of a need for acceptance is no more justified than a terrorist plotting evil against other human beings also because the old ways. One cannot shake his/her finger at other nations, even urging military action, if at-home justice is quenched by apathy and indifference. At some point, [southern] whites must take inventory, even of the false narratives that supplant the quest for real harmony with myths about overriding American virtue when the past has been stained with unjust dealings.
Finally, people of faith must accept the responsibility that longstanding matters of racism have existed on our watch. We are the salt of the earth. The prophetic influence in the world that is called to bring cleansing, righteousness, and justice. [Matthew 5:13] With the binding and loosing power of God [Matthew 18:18] vested in us to both root-out hatred and release compassion, time has come for that power to manifest in concrete ways that break stronghold and transform society.
To that end, we are not simply called to “We shall overcome” euphoric gatherings. There is a time to hold hands. And there is a time for hands to be working.
In light of countless recent events that signal simmering racial tension, we must get to a deeper test of our collective resolve by challenging ourselves to stand-up, sign petitions, and/or take other actions of societal change in a multi-pronged effect to remove symbols that hurt black citizens and potentially encourage sociopathic white citizens. Moving against the continued flying on the Confederate Flag will not solve all our problems, but what a step in the right direction this would be.
If we cannot overcome this challenge, touchdown cheers, southern hospitality, and Joan Baez moments are just that – moments. And with regards to real race relations, terribly empty ones at that.
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