Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Confederate Battle Flag

The Marines and NASCAR made the news this past week when they banned the Confederate flag at all Marine bases and NASCAR events.  Both came down hard on the idea that the flag is a symbol of white supremacy, black oppression, slavery, and racial divisiveness.  In my opinion, the actions are absolutely right and the rationale spot-on.  It was long overdue.

I say this as a guy who was raised in the South in the mid-20th century.  I learned to think that blacks were not the equal of whites.  I thought that a "Rebel" exemplified independence, individualism, pride, a reverence for a code of honor, and a refusal to kowtow to authority.  This was reinforced by movies and TV shows that played up those characteristics with their white heroes.  Blacks were relegated to supporting roles, if they were even present at all. And the Rebel Flag was something to be proud of.  Heritage, you know.

My attitudes began to change while in high school.  I had a job one summer where I worked in a small plant alongside quite a few black men.  I discovered that, even though these guys may not have much education, that didn't mean they weren't smart.  They taught me how to do my job, and then how to do it better.  In the process, they taught me that those at the top (in this case, some college-educated white guys) don't always know the best way to do things.  And they opened my eyes to some of the unfortunate assumptions I had about blacks.  That began a change in my thought processes about race that continues to this day.

I've been working on my family history for a long time.  A few years ago, I discovered that two of my great-great-grandfathers, three of their brothers, and one of their cousins all fought in the Confederate Army.  Another, one of my great-great-great grandfathers, made saddles for the Confederate cavalry.  None of them were wealthy: they were all small farmers eking out a living.  None owned slaves.  But all were apparently very tough, capable, resourceful, and fought like hell.  They all came back from the war, although almost all suffered badly from wounds, disease, starvation, imprisonment in a POW camp, or various combinations.  They returned home to a South that had been devastated.  They survived there, but didn't prosper. 

So, when I see a Confederate battle flag, I see a flag that my ancestors fought for.  I think of men who did the job they thought they had to do, did it well, and survived some unbelievably bad times by toughness, tenacity, and giving it their all.  I wouldn't be here if they didn't.

But that doesn't mean the Confederate flag is something to celebrate today.  This was the flag of states that wanted to perpetuate and expand the enslavement of black people.  That was the sole purpose of the war.  It wasn't to "resist Northern aggression", it wasn't for "state's rights", it wasn't for any of those other reasons.  It all goes back to slavery.  And that is totally counter to the Declaration of Independence's phrase "all men are created equal".  So, while I can honor the personal characteristics of my ancestors, I can't honor the cause for which they fought.

And not only does the Confederate flag say "slavery", it also says "treason".  This is a flag of those that actively fought against the United States.  To fly a Confederate flag says "I honor those who killed American soldiers".  You can't fly a Confederate flag to honor that legacy and still call yourself a patriotic American.  It's one or the other.

And last week, the Marine Corps and NASCAR both came to the same conclusion.  It's about time.  Let's put the Confederate flags into museums where they belong.  And leave them there.