Let the Flag Come Down

A seminal moment occurred on June 17 when twenty-one year old Dylann Roof entered a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat with a Wednesday Bible study group for about an hour, then pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot nine of them to death. Roof’s flagrant white supremacist views, as seen in photos of him with a gun and a Confederate flag, as well as his stated desire to start a race war, have brought to new life a vigorous debate about the Confederate flag, and particularly its display by government bodies on public property. South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley bravely declared that it should come down from the Capitol grounds. The legislature, after beating down some foot-dragging amendments, approved, and on July 10 the flag was officially lowered to widespread cheers and moved to a museum. Even the flagpole and fencing were removed. Meanwhile Mississippi legislators seem content to let the fervor cool as time passes, knowing that having the only state flag that contains, in its upper left corner, the entire Confederate flag puts Mississippi’s flag under an unwelcome glare.

The question of whether the Stars and Bars should continue to fly on Southern states’ public properties pits Southern ultra-conservative ideologues claiming to defend their “heritage” against progressives, moderate Republicans, and especially black Americans, all of whom know, when all is said and done, that the flag really is about white supremacy. The likelihood that few flag supporters could name a single relative in the Civil War severely undermines the heritagers’ claims of ancestral affection and protestations of racial good will. A realtor friend of mine told me a few years ago that when a house would become available for sale in a white area, some neighbors would put up a Confederate flag to deter possible black buyers. It was unequivocally not about “heritage.” Both the white homeowners and any potential black buyers knew exactly what that flag meant: blacks audacious enough to buy would be entering hostile territory.

The flag’s meanings are multi-layered, but heritage is the least of them. “Heritage” is the benign cover for the many malign realities. Fueling the white supremacist meaning, the flag is a statement of defiance against the great accumulated stockpile of right wing Southern white grievances—a black president, civil rights, black advancement and accomplishment, the daily necessity of interaction with black people on an equal basis, or, worse, in positions of authority, all of which presumably come at the heritagers’ aggrieved expense. So the flag is their proud statement of defiance against all of that. It is not coincidence that the state of South Carolina did not raise the flag at its capitol until 1962, as the state’s racist senator Strom Thurmond railed against civil rights, and the state legislature gloried in thumbing its collective nose at the civil rights-loving federal government and Yankee interference with the “Southern way of life.” Yankees, claim the heritagers, have been interfering with that way of life since its apogee in the antebellum years, and the war, symbolized by the Confederate battle flag, was the glorious scream of defiance to end that Northern interference. In fact, the heritage actually being defended is the infamy of a revolt against the United States, a revolt costing over 600,000 souls and innumerable limbs and traumatized lives. The revolt’s sole purpose, without which it would not have happened, was to preserve America’s original and most shameful sin. That is the real heritage represented by the flag—hatred and violent defiance of a government that would end the South’s presumed right to own, exploit, torture, and rape other human beings.

Southern heritage, of which I too am a part, is already well represented at county courthouses across the South. Statues and monuments to the Confederate dead adorn courthouse lawns, and I have no heavy brief against that. The county I live in, Forrest County, Mississippi, is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunate, but so be it. The flag, though, is another matter. Statues and monuments to war dead really do reflect heritage, and I can respect that in the same way I can respect, say, actual German war dead. But the flag is not about those real humans dying in a morally contemptible cause, but rather about present day grievance and message-sending. I can respect my great, great grandfather and Civil War veteran Larkin Creech without retreating into the suspect sentimentality of “heritage,” without approving the morally bankrupt cause for which he fought, and without waving an inflammatory flag whose current real meaning we all know.

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