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Perhaps the Confederate flag should continue to fly in public places in America. As a reminder that some causes deserve to be lost.
The debate over the flag’s place on the lawns of government buildings and in the history of the country was revived when a 21-year-old white man killed nine black worshippers in a southern American church. Dylann Roof, who according to friends had complained that “blacks were taking over the world,” faces murder and other charges in what authorities describe as a hate crime on hallowed ground in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Denmark Vesey, who was among the founders of the church and was affectionately known as Mother Emanuel, was hanged after plotting a slave revolt in 1822. His church was burned but rebuilt after the Civil War and would host Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
In a history of the Civil War, Shelby Foote writes that Robert E. Lee himself was among leaders who suggested the Confederacy free slaves and enlist them as fighters if it wanted to win the war. The suggestion went nowhere, Foote continues, in the face of opposition from die-hards who “contended that no government … whatever its desperation under the threat of imminent extinction, had the right to interfere in matters involving social institutions, especially slavery.’’ Slavery, some argued, was the cornerstone of the Confederacy.
That sealed it for me. If the South chose defeat over emancipation, who can seriously argue that the war was over slavery?
Yet Foote himself is among those who say that the reasons for war were more complex, and that it is reductionist and wrong to see the Confederate flag as a racist emblem of a brutal past. Foote told PBS in 2000 that for him “the flag is a symbol my great grandfather fought under and in defense of.’’ He acknowledged the same flag has been flown by opponents of the campaign for African Americans to live free of terror and enjoy the rights of all Americans. But Foote argued “the people who knew what that flag really stood for should have stopped those yahoos from using it as a symbol of what they stood for.’’
In the end, reasoning white racists into surrendering a flag black Americans associated with slavery was a lost cause. Not because of what the racists fail to understand, but because of what they know in their bones.
Ostensibly, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War occasioned the placing of the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse dome in Charleston, not far from Mother Emanuel, in 1961. It stayed in symbolic defiance of the civil rights movement until, after protests, a compromise saw it replaced in 2000 by a smaller version on a flagpole on the front lawn.
In the wake of the Mother Emanuel shootings, the U.S. and state flags at the Statehouse were lowered to half-staff in mourning. But the Confederate flag remained at the top of its 30-foot pole.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the flag to be moved to a museum. Lawmakers have agreed to at least consider the idea, setting the stage for what is likely to be a passionate summer debate.
Business isn’t waiting for the politicians. Amazon, EBay, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart say they will stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.
Roof, the suspect in the church shootings, saw the obvious: the connection between white extremists in the United States and those elsewhere. Photos of Roof that have circulated in the global media show him waving the Confederate flag and wearing badges depicting the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and the now defunct, racist-led Rhodesia.
Better lessons can be drawn from southern Africa. While writing a book about South Africa’s struggle to build a united nation on a racially divided past, I interviewed a professor who is white and Afrikaans-speaking, meaning she is from the Afrikaner minority some might blame for the apartheid policies that once denied economic, educational and political opportunities to most South Africans. She’s now teaching black and white students at a university once reserved for Afrikaners. She has taken a hard look at her own life and the assumptions on which she was raised, and concluded that rather than clinging to the past, “today, something else is more important, and that is embracing the variety that our country offers. Either you have your fears of losing something, or you have the excitement of experiencing something new or something better. You have to decide what you want.”
Those who cling to the Confederate flag are still pushing back, saying that this emotional period following the Mother Emanuel shootings is not the time to consider change, and that they are proud of the heritage they believe the flag represents.
Occasionally, as I read Foote’s exhaustive, deservedly celebrated three-volume Civil War history, I joked to myself I would scream the next time I came across the phrase `red-haired Ohioan,’’ his go-to description for the North’s Ulysses S. Grant. But I was more often struck by Foote’s eloquence, as when he described this paradox: “the Confederacy, in launching a revolution against change, should experience under pressure of the war which then ensued an even greater transformation.’’
Some Americans continue to revolt against change. The ultimate lost cause.
PS21 is a non-ideological, non-governmental, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.