Understanding and Tolerance is the appropriate response to the Confederate Flag
For all of our celebrations of unity during the 4th of July, there is still much that divides our country. Of course, this should be expected from a country that is often described as a melting pot. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves whether we are truly a “country in which cultural assimilation results in blending the heritage and traditions of previously distinct ethnic groups” or whether we are more akin to a stirred glass of different colored liquids, blending at the fringes, but remaining distinct at its center.
The relevance of this question appears important in trying to understand how we view the world. The view that our shared experiences melt and fuse our society together seems a driver in what is commonly called “political correctness.” This notion posits a homogeneous view of the world, one in which mutual understanding and sensitivity dominate dissimilarities.
This seems a noble idea, but runs aground on the harsh realities of life. There are clear differences in culture, up-brining, economic status, race and a host of other characteristics and experiences that make us both individuals and part of different groups. The “rub” is not that we are dissimilar, rather that we view things through different filters, which causes us to see sometimes vastly different causes and conclusions.
The most recent manifestation of our “differences” has emerged out of the tragic shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina. It has become apparent that the shooting was at least partially motivated by racism. Given the circumstances, it is understandable why people would create links to historical animosities between whites and blacks. To some, the clear symbol of that division is the Confederate Flag, which has now become the center of controversy once again.
This flag’s history and use is not well understood. First, the so-called Southern Cross, started as the battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It was used because the original Confederate Stars and Bars was often mistaken for the Union flag resulting in friendly fire. For this reason, many southerners revere the flag as a military standard representing a defeated army. Soldiers fight for their country, however it is defined and their sacrifices are worthy of respect.
However, this does not mean that this banner is untainted by the cause for which it was used. In 1863, the Confederacy adopted its second flag, a white field with the battle flag in the upper left corner. This flag did represent the government of the Confederate States and as such is clearly linked to the promulgation of slavery.
Interestingly, the Confederate Battle Flag was not much used in the fifty years after the Civil War except in memorial services and reenactments. In the middle of the twentieth century it made a resurgence, but along several distinct paths.
It re-emerged in popular culture in 1947, when a group of fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina brought Confederate flags and waved them at a football game. Subsequently, UVA. fans brought Confederate flags to a game against the University of Pennsylvania. The rebel flag became the rage at football games and social events across the South. This tradition is still alive at Ole Miss and South High School.
The rebel flag is has further evolved to symbolize a rebellion against authority much like the Gadsen “Don’t Tread on Me” flag or the “Jolly Roger” skull and crossbones. At a time when a perceived activist Federal government seems to be reaching ever-further into personal liberties, be it in the name of national security or social engineering, it seems at least understandable that some people would wave the Confederate Battle Flag just because it says, “You can’t stop me!”
This seems to be at least in part the motivation for the recent local “pro-American freedom rally.” However, I find it rather ironic that many of the Confederate flag wavers are self-described patriots, yet the symbol they display represented an enemy of the United States. This is a further example of how befuddling the discussions surrounding this symbol have become.
Perhaps the most insidious use of the Confederate Battle Flag came into being during the civil rights era. The segregationist Dixiecrat party of 1948, who ran Strom Thurmond for president, took on the Confederate flag as its symbol. It was also used by the KKK to represent white supremacy. The confederate flag was first hoisted at the capital in South Carolina in 1961. Whether it was to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War or as an act of resistance against racial desegregation is unclear, but it is likely both motivations were at play.
So what does the Confederate Battle Flag represent? Heritage? Slavery? Spirit? Rebellion? Racism? The flag or any symbol has no intrinsic meaning. It is simply an arrangement of colors and shapes. The meaning symbols carry is that which humans attach from their own learning. We can never truly know what is in the heart of another person, so we will never truly know their purpose in action.
I recently heard John Coski talk about his book The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. In it, he gave a quote, from an ACLU lawyer to an assembly in North Carolina, “If your need to express pride in your southern heritage is worth hurting those who are offended, do what you must but try to see that the message you intend to send is not that received. Those who are offended should see the confederate flag means many different things to many different people. Recognize it has significance beyond racism. Try to see the message you receive may not be what the person displaying it intends to send.”
In the end, the rights granted by our constitution allow acts of free speech that some people find offensive. As a former soldier, I am appalled by the sight of someone burning or stomping on the Stars and Stripes. To them it apparently represents something evil to be reviled. I took an oath to defend the country for which that symbol stands and their right to do what I find so abhorrent; so tolerate it we must.