Take that Flag Down

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tags: Confederacy, Confederate flag

Aaron Brown is a PhD student studying US history and foreign relations at Ohio University. He is also a fellow at the university’s Contemporary History Institute and has written for the History News Network, American Diplomacy, and The Athens (Ohio) News. He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

Related Link NYT Debate:  Does the Confederate Flag Breed Racism?

I, along with the vast majority of humanity, was stunned and saddened by the events that took place at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston on Wednesday evening.  I, as a “son of the South,” feel exasperated knowing that one individual has single-handedly reminded the country and the world that racism at its most vile is still alive and well in certain dark corners of this region of America.  Dylann Roof’s case is extreme, but he is not alone in his worldview. We, as Southerners and Americans, have not completely expelled our demons.  And, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we should not expect to do so any time soon (or have a reasoned debate on firearms for that matter). But we have the power to engage in a serious conversation about the symbols that we hold dear.  Let us start with the Confederate flag.     

Growing up in North Carolina, I saw “the stars and bars” here and there.  It showed up on cars, flew occasionally on Blue Ridge hilltops, and I once saw a barn with a large depiction of it painted across the broad side.  I associated the flag with something called “Southern pride” and rebellion, positive ideas in my young mind, though I never saw the Confederate emblem anywhere in my own house.  But I also cannot remember a time when I did not associate the stars and bars with one of the South’s most controversial legacies – segregation.  The Confederate flag as most people know it today (red background, blue St. Andrews cross with white stars) was one of many flown during the Civil War era and was not the de facto symbol of Southern secession.  It did, however, become a most visible symbol of racial apartheid during the Civil Rights era.  The flag flew ubiquitously throughout the Deep South as Dixiecrat politicians defied the Federal government in their demand for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” 

But the Confederate flag also flew in places that were not part of the former Confederacy.  Newsreels from 1966 show plenty of stars and bars displayed in Chicago when Martin Luther King sought to mobilize demonstrators to challenge unfair and racist laws there.  In fact, I have seen as many of these flags in areas outside of the South as I have in my native state.  A college acquaintance from Connecticut had one plastered on his dorm room wall.  I noticed a couple in Syracuse, New York a few years ago.  I can drive within a ten mile radius of my current home in central Ohio and find several.  They are not, by any means, limited to one geographic region.

The reality is that plenty of decent Americans, Southern and not, own and display Confederate flags.  But the fact remains that this seemingly innocuous symbol of rebellion and pride also reminds a segment of the American population that it was once subjected to the most inhumane of treatment.  And, when flown on state government grounds as it currently does in South Carolina, it seems to do little but endorse this dark period in the nation’s history.  Americans enjoy constitutional protection when they display the stars and bars on their cars, barns, or houses, but state governments are supposed to represent the entirety of their populations.  Sending such an inflammatory message to a long-suffering (and sizable in most Southern states) minority does little to advance the cause of racial harmony. 

The state of South Carolina has a lot to be proud of. Charleston is one of the country’s unique cities (a combination of European and Caribbean influences), with beautiful beaches.  The upstate region provides for a beautiful drive, and the state boasts several excellent universities.  There are many reasons for South Carolinians to expect that their state will continue to be a destination for those seeking to escape the cold winters of Ohio and Michigan.  But, particularly in light of the recent bloodshed in Charleston, the state legislature needs to make a statement not only to its own black citizens, but to the nation as a whole, that symbols do matter and that the time has come for the Confederate flag to be removed from the Capitol grounds.  

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