Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hate groups foes of civil rights have misused Confederate battle flag, Civil War historian says

Misuse of what people call the Confederate flag by white racist groups over the past 75 years has changed the flag's meaning and tarnished its historical significance, opines William C. Davis, former executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech University, for The Wall Street Journal. The flag has received much publicity lately in the wake of the murders of nine African Americans at a historic Charleston church and the arrest of a white suspect with ties to hate groups. Many people have called for Confederate symbols to be removed from official buildings, and last Friday the flag was taken down from the South Carolina statehouse.

Here is an excerpt from Davis's column: 
William C. Davis
In fact, what is popularly known as 'the Confederate flag' never flew over Confederate capitols or public buildings, where different banners reigned. Rather, this emblem brought down on Friday was the Confederate 'battle flag,' designed to be carried at the head of a regiment and used as its rallying point in battle, where the flag’s blue St. Andrew’s cross on a field of brilliant red might stand out through the smoke of battle.

As such, it primarily stood for a unit’s pride in its valor in action, though all of the Confederacy’s symbols naturally carried an intrinsic affirmation of its foundational tenets, including the perpetuation of slavery. After the Union victory in 1865, those battle flags not surrendered, buried, thrown into rivers or cut up as souvenirs went home to quiet repose in closets, attics and, later, museums.

There they remained for decades, undisturbed and in the main undisturbing despite the unhappy meaning still attached to them, their image even protected by veterans’ groups from inappropriate political or commercial use.

But that all ended in the 1940s, when opponents of the emerging civil-rights movement raised the old banner for a new battle. Soon, [some] former Confederate states incorporated it into their state flags, and militant white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan began deploying it as a symbol of resistance to integration and voting rights. The worst proponents of white supremacy displayed that emblem while committing unspeakable violence against African-Americans and white supporters of civil rights. They still do: Witness Charleston.

Southern 'heritage' groups who oppose removing the battle flag are reluctant to acknowledge that this same dynamic has tainted their cherished emblem. But it has. Whatever the flag meant from 1865 to 1940, the flag’s misuse by a white minority of outspokenly bigoted and often violent people has indelibly shifted that meaning.

It is now remembered around the world with images of defiant governors standing in schoolhouse doors, with the snapping dogs of Birmingham, with police barricades to keep black youths out of classrooms, with beatings and lynchings in the night, with churches set ablaze, with fear, intimidation, hatred and the constant reminder that the descendants of slaves were not welcome in their own country.

The argument that the battle flag is displayed only as a symbol of pride in Southern heritage loses force when one recalls that while Florida, Alabama and Mississippi added elements of the banner to their flags around the turn of the last century, Georgia incorporated the battle emblem into its state flag only in 1956, and South Carolina began flying the battle flag over its state house as late as 1961. Both were unequivocal declarations of defiance to desegregation and the civil-rights movement.

Defenders of the battle flag often further assert that Southern secession and the resultant Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery, arguing that only a tiny fraction of people in the seceding states—usually cited as 3 percent to 6 percent—actually owned slaves. Thus, they say, the flag’s opponents are wrong to condemn it is a symbol of slavery and oppression.

But somebody owned the 3.5 million slaves in the Confederate states in 1861. In fact, census records reveal that 31 percent of all Confederate households held one or more slaves. The same records show that on farms large enough to avail themselves of slave labor, as many as 70 percent of planters owned their workers. Such ownership defined wealth and social status, regional culture and economic survival.

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