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Flags, Symbols and Learning from History

Updated on July 14, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Sherry Thornburg writes commentaries on current events and social issues. Graduate of University of Houston-Downtown.

A symbol from the past
A symbol from the past | Source

Flags in the News

I just read that on July 7th, Marion County Florida commissioners voted unanimously to return the Confederate flag to its place in the county's government complex. Marion County's interim county administrator, Bill Kauffman, had made the decision to remove the Confederate flag after the shootings in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th.

The flag had flown outside the county's government complex for more than two decades. It is part of a display of the five national flags which had flown over Florida since from the time of the first European explorers forward. The other four are Spanish, French, British and American flags.

Reactions by Marion County residents who spoke with News 13 interviewers Tuesday were overwhelmingly against the decision to remove the flag in the first place. "The fact remains it is part of our common and shared history," one viewer said as he watched the flag being raised back up with the others. "History is not always pretty, but it remains as our history. It's back where it should be."

In other interviews, people believed the flag should have been kept down. "I think it should be removed," one citizen said in an on the spot interview. "What value does it have to us now? That was years ago, and so many things have changed."

The Value of Symbols

That is a good question. If it is in the past and no longer of direct significance to the lives of the present, then why have such a display at all? By this reasoning, the other three flags being flown beside the American flag should be removed as well.

The display of the flag under discussion is in a historic context. The value of the display as a whole would be quantified as remembrance and education. There are many displays we erect for historical significance. They would not have been added to the landscape if they had not been of interest to enough people to be voted into being. But, there is a trend toward removing historically significant monuments of the past because they have lost meaning or hold negative connotations in the present.

To answer the question about the present value of the Confederate National Flag, one has to first agree to which flag you are talking about. The Flag of Confederacy being flown in Marion County Florida is actually the third National Flag of the Confederacy, known as the “Bloodstained Banner.” It was the last version used before the fall of the Confederacy.

The Confederate Flag or "The Confederate Battle Flag," most recognized in the present, is a combination of the Battle Flag's colors with the Second Navy Jack's design, according an historic information page found on the subject. It is also called the "Rebel" or “Dixie” flag. Calling it the "Stars and Bars" is inaccurate. That was the name of the first Confederate flag, a completely different design.

Flags of the Confederacy

The three flags used by the Confederacy
The three flags used by the Confederacy | Source

Recent Past and Present Perspectives

This Confederate Battle Flag or versions of it, were used a lot by Army and Marine companies during World War 2. These were companies with Southern nicknames or made up largely of Southerners. More rarely, the tradition continues to the present. As such, a good bit of its use has been handed down by military veterans showing regional heritage and pride.

In my observations growing up through the 1970s and forward, the flag was more a statement of rebellion than history. The car, General Lee, sported the flag on its roof. For those too young to remember that TV show, it was a comedy, all about rebellion against stereotyped small town authorities. Teens in the south have used it for years as a personal ensign of rebellion.

But in the present, most kids (17 to 21 year olds I’ve asked) also look on the flag as a symbol of southern pride, with none of the negative connotations their elders might see. It could be no different for this generation than wearing a home team jersey during football season. Has commercialism dulled away direct consciousness of its past meanings, or like the man who prompted the question being considered, does its past symbolism have no present relevance?

The General Lee

The General Lee, an iconic symbol of light-hearted rebellion in popular culture.
The General Lee, an iconic symbol of light-hearted rebellion in popular culture. | Source

Flags and their Historic Symbolism

A Confederate flag on display
A Confederate flag on display | Source
A Nazi flag on display
A Nazi flag on display | Source

Negative Symbolism and Association

Yet, it does have negative connotations for some people. No Black American can look at the battle flag and not see something negative, no matter how far removed from that era we are. In that way, its symbolism is no different than the Nazi flag.

No one with any knowledge of WW2 could see the symbol of the swastika and not think of the institutional mass murder that happened while it flew. Even now, with so many of the generation that fought on either side gone; the stigma of the Nazi flag remains. So too then does the negative aspects of what the Confederacy considered part of the state’s rights they were fighting for.

So, are there people that raise the Confederate flag for white supremacy? Unfortunately yes, but far more raise the American flag for that purpose. The KKK very proudly calls themselves an American organization and flies the Stars and Stripes, not the flag of Dixie. So are we to tear down the American flag because the KKK and other supremacist groups have commandeered it?

Judging History through the Eyes of the Present

There has been renewed calls for such actions. Again schools and statues and memorials to people who owned slaves or are attached to Civil War history are being eyed for demolition.

This has happened before. It was done in New Orleans on a large scale in the 1990s. Thirty-one schools were renamed. Many had been named for prominent African Americans who had founded schools to help former slaves after the war. Did they also own slaves before the war? Yes, many did. Did it stop them from promoting education for Blacks? No, but they were damned anyway with the intention of eradicating their misdeeds from public memory despite the good they also did.

So too was the name of George Washington, our nation's first president, when the elementary school on St. Claude Avenue was renamed. He too had been a slave owner. Shall we all burn our one dollar bills next? How about other currency that carries the picture of former slave owners. By the very fact that they owned slaves, their contributions to the founding of the country should be nullified, right?

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry were all slave-owners. Shall we remove their names from American history even though Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and others became strong abolitionists? Shall we tear up the Constitution because it compromised on ending slavery, even as it created a government powerful enough to abolish it later?

In some circles this is called shooting the wounded. Holding past actions against a person despite other valuable contributions, changes of heart or recognition of historic context could be considered yet another form of bias and intolerance.

Does the Touch of Slavery Tarnish All?

Declaration of Independence captured from, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Declaration_independence.jpg
Declaration of Independence captured from, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Declaration_independence.jpg | Source

Symbolism and History

Do you presently believe public displays involving the Civil War such as monuments, memorials, flags and prominent names associated with slavery be removed from public view.

See results

From History to Current Events

Federal Bureau of Investigation - Detroit Field Office release, Ingham County Sex Trafficking Crackdown: FBI Rescues 168 Children, 281 pimps nabbed.
Federal Bureau of Investigation - Detroit Field Office release, Ingham County Sex Trafficking Crackdown: FBI Rescues 168 Children, 281 pimps nabbed. | Source
Human Traffickers caught Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007
Human Traffickers caught Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007 | Source

Lest We Forget

When history is whitewashed to remove aspects that some find offensive, it removes knowledge of not only wrongs, but how those wrongs came about and how they were overturned. History is to be learned from. To forget it is to repeat it.

So in answer to the question, the value of these bits of history are in education and remembrance. Both are highly valuable to the present. But, I fear the efforts to wash away the memory of the past slave trade is allowing it's return.

We don’t call it slavery anymore. We have neutered the issue though renaming. Yet again, it is being justified in the name of cheap labor. Yet again, it dehumanizes men, women and children. You can see it every time a truckload of people are caught crossing through our cities and when children and teens disappear. Yet, we don’t call human trafficking slavery because too many don’t recognize it as such. Too many have forgotten what slavery is, how it began and what it will cost us to remove a second time.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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