We have it on good authority that the peacemakers are blessed, and that’s only fair, because we sure catch hell in this world. Not long ago I suggested that most Southerners who display the Confederate flag are not bigots and got some hate mail to the effect that only a bigot could believe that. Last month I observed that there’s something to be said for state symbols less divisive than that one and concluded that if I were a Georgian I’d probably favor taking the Southern Cross off the state flag. Now I find myself being chastised by folks who apparently believe that this is not a matter on which decent people can disagree. Political correctness comes in a variety of flavors, doesn’t it—or maybe I just wasn’t clear. Let me try again.
We’re going to be hearing a lot more about this flag business. So far the Georgia flap has received the most attention, partly because of the Olympic tie-in, partly (I suspect) because most of the national press has regional bureaus in Atlanta. But you may also have heard that next door in Alabama the flag’s opponents recently went to court to get an order forbidding the state to fly it over the capital where Jefferson Davis took his oath of office. As it happens, I’m writing this month from Mississippi, where yesterday Aaron Henry told an audience at Mississippi College that if Martin Luther King were alive today changing the state flag would be one of his top three priorities. (I forget the other two.) Obviously the winds of change are starting to blow.
Incidentally, Mississippi put the Southern Cross on its state flag in 1894, long before Georgia, not hesitating to resort to the kind of subterfuge that would later give literacy tests a bad name. Here’s a part of the description: “It [the state flag] incorporates the national colors and has 13 stars of the original colonies. It has a union square with a ground of red and a broad blue saltier thereon, broadened with white and emblazoned with stars.” Just coincidence, vvc are to suppose, that the result happens to be the Confederate battle flag.
Anyway, Ernest Renan once observed that the existence of a nation requires that some things be forgotten, and he was obviously right about that, as we’re seeing in the breakup of alleged nations around the world today. But the Southern nation somehow has to surmount two facts: that Southerners won’t forget any time soon what the Confederate flag means to them and that unfortunately it means different things to different Southerners. As I say, the South must surmount these facts—that is, if it’s to have a future as well as a past.
In earlier letters I’ve mentioned some studies of what the flag means. All show that to most Southern whites it means one of two things. For some, like my correspondents, it conjures up a variety of worthy Memorial Day sentiments, having to do with tradition, duty, honor, valor, sacrifice, and so forth. For a growing number of others, less historically minded, the flag’s specifically Confederate associations are muted. For them it connotes simply a hell-raising, goodtiming, outlaw kind of Southern pride. The songs of Hank Williams Jr., for instance, often “brag on that rebel flag,” and his fans wave it at his concerts, but he doesn’t mean any harm by it and they don’t either. (It’s a white Southern thing. You wouldn’t understand.) If you expect either group—the filiopietistic or the boogie-till-you-puke—to renounce or abandon its orientation, you’ve got a long wait coming.
But neither of these views is shared or even understood by most non-Southerners or, more importantly, by most Southern blacks. The same studies show that most black Southerners (and a small minority of white ones) see the flag as a sign of the Ku Klux Klan or, more generally, of resistance to the civil rights movement. And, of course, they’re not always wrong about that.
Last year I paid a visit to the new civil rights museum in Memphis. Located in the old Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot, this has to be the world’s wordiest museum—wall after wall of text to read. I was skimming my way through the place when I came across a quotation from James Jackson Kilpatrick, back when he was still a Richmond newspaperman and no friend of desegregation. Kilpatrick wrote then that he was taken aback by the sight of a flag once carried into battle by brave and honorable men, waved by a hateful rabble who turned out to bully black schoolchildren. It gives one pause, he wrote. It still should.
That association is not merely a leftover from the 1950’s and 1960’s, either. There’s no mistaking the meaning of the rather grim householder in my hometown who flies the battle flag once a year—on Martin Luther King’s birthday. When the Klan sent a few dozen outside agitators to march down Chapel Hill’s main street a few years ago, they carried that flag. And ads for biker regalia in Easy Riders magazine sometimes offer the choice of the swastika or . . . that flag.
The jackals who deploy the flag this way are in a perverse collaboration with the flag’s opponents to make the symbols of the Confederacy stand for white supremacy and nothing else. Those who want to defend the flag might give some thought to defending it against them. Last spring I read a news item from Montgomery reporting that a racist skinhead group had announced its intention to decorate Confederate graves. The usual crowd of antiracist groups turned out to protest the skinheads’ very existence, but my question was: where were the Sons of Confederate Veterans? I wish that they, too, had turned out—to protest this desecration.
We need more stories like that, and like a recent one from Roanoke reporting that the S.C.V. there joined with the city’s black mayor and its oldest black Presbyterian church to celebrate the anniversary of a stained-glass window honoring Stonewall Jackson. The window was installed by an early minister whose parents had attended a Sunday School for slaves, established by Jackson when he was a professor at VMI. That is the kind of story that shakes up preconceptions, that suggests history’s not as simple as the textbooks paint it.
I hope it’s not too late to redeem the Old Flag, but it will certainly take a mighty effort, which has to start with some recognition of what the flag now means to many of our fellow citizens. Meanwhile, attempts to universalize the Confederacy’s symbols (by including them in state flags, for instance) imply either that those symbols are black folks’, too, or that black folks don’t count.
Given that, shouldn’t the flag’s partisans—those of good will—say something to their opponents like this:
First, we don’t accept your interpretation of what the flag means, and if we feel like it, we’ll fly it, put it on our cars, tattoo it on our foreheads, whatever we damn well please—meaning by it what we mean by it, not what you think we mean. Second, we understand that it does mean something different to you. Third, we also recognize that there’s no more chance that you’ll buy our interpretation than that we’ll buy yours. Fourth, symbols of the South (a fortiori, a state flag) should enlist the loyalty and affection of as many Southerners (citizens of the state) as practicable. Fifth, we’re therefore willing to look for symbols of the South (a state flag) we can all be attached to.
This strikes me as a coherent and reasonable position, and I’d be very curious to know which part of it mv critics don’t accept.
Of course, that just gets us to the hard part. What kinds of symbols fill that bill? If you simply make up something, you’re likely to wind up with synthetic pseudo-tradition, like Kwanzaa, or, if you’re really inept, the Atlanta Olympics’ Whatizit, a semiotic black hole that not only has no meaning itself but drains the meaning from everything in its vicinity. When Southern magazine went looking for regional symbols a few years ago, it ran into this problem. Its suggestions were so sterile, so unevocativc, that I can’t even remember what they were.
With time, though, constructed symbols take on meaning (OK, maybe Whatizit’s an exception). Every flag was new once: no one had died for it. You have to start somewhere. What could be a suitable emblem of Southern unity?
Personally, I’m partial to one of those flying pigs you see on barbecue signs. No, seriously: a good barbecue joint may be the one place you’ll find Southerners of all descriptions—yuppies, hippies, and cowboys. Christians and sinners, black and white together. Not dignified enough for you? Well, lack of that concern is a regional tradition, too. Remember how “Dixie” goes on about “buckwheat cakes and Injun batter” that “makes you fat and a little fatter”? Elvis could get with that. Oprah, too. And Delta Burke. Maynard Jackson. Bill Clinton.
But if a winged pig just won’t do as a symbol for the new, aerobic South— Dixie Lite—I’ve got two examples of something a little more cerebral. The first conies from the strange case of the Southern Students Organizing Committee, a group that 60’s trivia buffs may recall as a sort of regional affiliate of SDS. Its members delighted in mixed messages: their newsletter was called “The Rebel Yell,” and their logo was two clasped hands, black and white, superimposed on the battle flag. As I heard it, their Weatherman comrades from the Northeast and the West Coast found all this about as amusing as the Klan must have, just couldn’t handle it, and drummed SSOC out of the movement. I’ll forgive them a lot for that.
Just so, last year I was startled, then amused, then heartened to see the battle flag flying from a student residence at the College of Charleston—right next to the green, red, and black banner of black nationalism. I have no idea who flew those flags together, or why, but that sort of juxtaposition can make people stop and think, and I’m optimistic enough to believe that’s usually not a bad thing.
These examples make me wonder whether there’s some way to universalize the Confederate symbols after all, some way collectively to accept the past for what it was, not deny or forget it, but transform it for our common use. Some other people have been thinking along these same lines lately, and maybe—just maybe—they’re getting somewhere. Consider, for instance, the T-shirt designed by Southern Reader, a quirky, neo-secessionist, “eco-regionalist” bimonthly out of Oxford, Mississippi. It bears a battle flag, transformed: black and white on a field of green. And a motto from James Brown: “Keep It Funky.” I don’t know about you, but I think it would be delightful if a few thousand spectators turned up at the Atlanta Olympics in those shirts. If nothing else, it would drive the network guys crazy.
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