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The Confederate Flag Controversy: A Plea for Honesty

Updated on July 1, 2015
The Confederate Battle Flag, also known as the Southern Cross.
The Confederate Battle Flag, also known as the Southern Cross.

As a southern man, I have looked upon the controversy surrounding the display of the Confederate battle flag with a bit of dismay. It seems as though any evil which may be found in American history - regardless of the nature and time - can ultimately have its cause march under the banner of the Southern Cross. This is indeed troublesome, for it can become a clever way of shifting blame from the collective guilt of us all upon the shoulders of a selective segment of the American population.

And that would be the American southland.

Let me say from the onset that I have never displayed the Confederate battle flag (or flags, to be technically correct), and have no apparel which promotes it. Frankly, I never saw the need since I do not live in a museum and because the south did, in fact, lose the war. Yet as a devotee of history, I find myself a bit uneasy over the recent movement to dismantle all things Confederate.

There is little doubt that within the southern states the rise of the Confederacy and its war in the “lost cause” has been romanticized to the point of over-glorification. Though the issue of slavery may not have been the flash point for every Rebel soldier in the field, it certainly was with regard to the political causes which germinated the outbreak of civil war. Since that time, southerners been forced to defend their stake in the war by claiming every legal cause except slavery, an argument which, in the end, has proven to be indefensible. The proclamation of secession by the southern states of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas explicitly declare the defense of the institution of slavery as a main reason, and the secession the other southern states, which may not have mentioned slavery as a main issue, nevertheless identified with the defense of slave ownership within their sister sates by not disavowing the practice.

Thus the valiant effort in the “lost cause” loses some of its romantic luster. And the imagery of a noble struggle for states rights against the encroaching powers of the federal government is forever overshadowed by the towering monument to slavery.

But the northern states are clearly not without criticism for their flamboyant hypocrisy. To say that northerners came south to fight with abolitionist fervor stretches credulity to the breaking point. Lincoln, ever the pragmatist (and I say this as a fan of the man), didn’t make slavery an “official” cause until almost two full years into the war, and even then it was limited in force to the states in rebellion. Although Lincoln himself firmly held to abolition, even he had to weigh it in the balance of political expediency. In short, Lincoln realized that the Emancipation Proclamation and other related issues surrounding slavery had to be crafted amidst northern duplicity. During the war freed or escaped slaves traveled north only to find themselves largely ostracized or relegated to menial labor. They may not have been slaves technically, but they were practically. Blacks were first banned from serving in the Union army, then permitted with restrictions. They were mostly consigned to non-combat roles, and were commanded by white officers only. Discrimination within Union forces was rampant.

After the war, life for freed slaves changed little. There was, at least, the hope of a better life with new found liberty, but the reality of an aimless existence due to a deprivation of education and training necessary for proper job skills soon set in. Blacks migrated north looking for the promised land only to find tenement housing and the avoidance of white neighbors. Desegregation of the armed forces finally occurred in 1948 with Executive Order 9981, almost a century after the war to end slavery was concluded. The post World War II exodus of whites from major cities to suburbia, known as the “white flight,” left the inner cities for black families to occupy. The result was the creation of ghettos, which in the United States became synonymous with the presence of low-income, unskilled African-Americans. The point of this is that such conditions occurred not only throughout the defeated and resentful south, but equally in cities north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Returning to the subject of the American Civil War, this post-reconstruction treatment of blacks by both north and south only begs the question as to what the men on both sides of the conflict thought of the issue while entrenched on the battlefield. Slavery didn’t seem to be the prevailing cause when mustering the troops for battle, which would stand to reason logically. On the one hand, men in the northern states would have been reluctant to march forth and die on a southern battlefield to free the black slaves. On the other hand, the men of the south would have been reluctant to fight and die so that plantation aristocrats could maintain their slave holdings. From the firing of the first shot, the men in the field, regardless of uniform, seemed for the most part to be divorced from the impetus of slavery as an overriding cause. For them, the umbrella under which they fought seemed to be that of either preservation of the union by the subjugation of the states in rebellion or the right of the states to self determine their destiny by rising against northern aggression. Slavery in itself seemed to be somewhat of an ancillary issue, at least for the men holding the muskets on the firing line.

Why, then, has the Confederate Navy Jack become the catalyst of such dreadful hatred by so many? There are doubtless several answers which may be proffered, but one cannot deny that foremost is the fact that the flag (which incidentally was never the official flag of the Confederacy) flew in battle over an army assembled from states which sought to protect the institution of slavery. Its subsequent use by post WWII southern segregationists and white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan certainly cast the Southern Cross in an even more ghastly light.

Yet despite the understandable visceral reaction by African-Americans and other minority groups who have been the victims of racism perpetrated by those who waved the Confederate battle flag, there is nonetheless a fact with which we must all reckon.

Removing the flag and Confederate monuments from public display will avail little.

Banning the Confederate flag from government buildings is the proper path to follow, but prohibiting its public display completely is more than simply unattainable, it’s also a sleight of hand. It detracts attention from the core problem which lies within us all. History has shown that racism, essentially institutionalized both in the ante-bellum and post-bellum south, has been likewise alive and well in the north. A movement against all things Confederate might provide a temporary balm to a collective guilty conscience, but it cannot heal. That will come when each of us looks within our own soul and takes the courageous and morally correct step of personal reform.

If we do, then the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag will become as irrelevant as the flag itself.

Segregated housing in Chicago.
Segregated housing in Chicago.

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