Recently, a vicious terrorist attack by a young white supremacist on a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina became the focal point for a recurring debate on the propriety of flying what has become known as the Confederate flag. As someone who was born in a border state and raised in the South, this debate has a certain amount of personal interest for me.
As many have pointed out, the flag in question is the battle flag of Northern Virginia, not the flag of the Confederacy. That is an historical fact; it’s just irrelevant to the question of whether the flag is inextricably bound up with racism generally and white supremacism in particular. All too often, it is suggested that it is not so bound up because it is not actually the flag of the Confederacy. All too often, it is suggested that Southern Heritage as symbolized by the battle flag can be separated cleanly from the white supremacism of many of those who flew it.
As historians know (and has been nicely documented over at Nursing Clio), there is no clean way of separating a battle flag flown by those fighting to keep their ability to enslave others from the racism and white supremacism that functioned as a social justification for it. We can look back and understand that ending slavery would (and arguably did) devastate the economy of the South at the time, and that this would have far-reaching ill effects for many Southerners. We can look back and understand that the conflict was aggravated by cultural differences between North and South which had nothing to do with racism, racism being quite common in the North as well even into the present. We can look back and understand that state sovereignty is a serious political issue which was also critical to driving the Civil War, and that there are good arguments for it quite aside from the maintenance of slavery.
None of this understanding leads to the conclusion that slavery, white supremacism, and racism more generally can be unbound from the Southern Heritage as symbolized in the battle flag. If it could be, then it would not have been raised and flown very intentially during the Civil Rights movement by those opposed to it. If it could be, then the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Slavery, white supremacism, and racism are part of our Southern inheritance along with Southern hospitality, Southern accents, and Southern cuisine.
Though many parts of it are good, not everything in our Southern Heritage is good. Sometimes we inherit things from our ancestors we would rather not have, things that prompt us to feel sadness because our ancestors terrorized and abused the ancestors of those who are our dear friends and co-workers today. We will always be visited by the ghosts of those Confederate ancestors when we invoke Southern Heritage.
Just as we correctly want Northerners to understand that Southern Heritage is about much more than racism, white supremacism, and slavery, so too we can and should admit that those things are a part of that heritage, that we inherited a treasure stained with blood spilled in gravest injustice, just as we all inherited a treasure stained with blood when we were raised in the United States of America, a country whose people have committed many atrocities against many peoples in the course of our nation’s history.
When we fly the flag of the United States, we are prepared to accept that many unpleasant and unjust things have happened under that banner. And in the same way, those who choose to fly the battle flag popularly known as the Confederate flag should be prepared to accept that many unpleasant and unjust things happened under that banner. Instead of trying to pretend that the ghosts of Confederates past do not haunt our nation, we need to acknowledge the mistakes those ghosts warn us about and make our best efforts to ensure that those mistakes are not made again.
We do not need to eliminate the flag from anything and everything so that we can conveniently forget the racism and white supremacism that is still alive and well today even in the North where I live now, nor do we need to try to keep the flag and fly it while conveniently forgetting the racism and white supremacism that is still alive and well today in the South. Let’s keep the flag in our museums as a ghost of the Confederates in our past, as a reminder of the blood that has been shed in gravest injustice, and as a reminder of the work we have yet to do to eliminate white supremacism and bring justice to the victims of it as best we can.
Hopefully, we can learn from our Southern Heritage that it is far better to have friends and equals than to keep others enslaved, that it is far better to raise up our brothers and sisters of color than to play down the darkest parts of our heritage, that it is best to replace the fire of injustice left to us by our ancestors with the light of justice which we would be proud to give to our descendants.