The Confederate battle flag continues to be a source of conflict and controversy. One year ago, Michael Westerman of Elkton, Kentucky, a 19- year-old father of twins, was murdered by black teens who took offense to the Confederate flag hung in the back of Westerman’s truck. When one of the black teens, Freddie Morrow, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, he and his relatives blamed everything on the flag. As the Lexington Herald-Leader reported in January, though “last week’s trial was conflicting over the symbolism of the flag, Morrow’s grieving relatives have no doubts: the Rebel flag is a provocative symbol of hatred and oppression. [They] blame it for his life sentence in prison.”
John Shelton Reed argued a few years ago that the country needed some other symbol for the South than the Confederate battle flag, which so many people, particularly black Southerners, found offensive. I replied that we had little choice in the matter. History gives you your symbols—you cannot make them up. The battle flag has entered into the folk consciousness of the country—indeed of the world—as the symbol of the South.
Had I been quick enough I would have added: Because skinheads wear crosses, do we have to take down all the crosses from the churches? The American Nazis in the 1930’s (and American communists, too) met under the Stars and Stripes and huge portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Does that mean we have to burn all five dollar bills? The Confederate battle flag is too large a symbol to be invalidated by its use or misuse in one particular period.
Sheldon Vanauken, author of the Christian classic A Severe Mercy, tells in his autobiography how he, a Virginian, went through a bohemian period in New York after the early untimely death of his wife. During this period he took part in a number of civil rights demonstrations carrying a placard with the battle flag on one side. More than once he was stopped by a friendly New York cop with: “Buddy, you’re in the wrong demonstration.” Vanauken then would turn his placard around to the other side, which said: “Confederates for civil rights.”
A report in my local press recently told the story of a World War II incident, typical of many, because it is my impression that the battle flag was carried proudly in that war, in Korea, and even in Vietnam. The Fifth Marine Division, after desperate fighting, took Shuri Castle, the last point of resistance on Okinawa. The only flag available to the first men in was a Confederate battle flag carried in the helmet of Captain Julius Dusenberry, a South Carolinian, which was unfurled and hauled up. As far as I am aware, no one on the front lines objected to the display of that honorable American symbol. Certainly not the local commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., son of a Confederate general, and who was later killed in action.
During the televised events of the fall of Soviet occupation in the Baltic states, I remember a glimpse of one man in the jubilant crowd waving a Confederate battle flag in a sea of Estonian flags. I would like to know what that man was thinking. We ought to consider what the flag meant to him, nor do I think it is explained merely by reference to neofascism or adolescent rebellion. Did he view the flag as an expression of high spirits? As a symbol of heroic resistance by an outnumbered, conquered people? Was it sympathy expressed by someone whose own national symbols had been forbidden for half a century with another people whose symbols were threatened?
And where is the offense to be found in this honorable American symbol? A Harris poll in 1994, reported by Reuters, found that American adults, by a three-to-one margin, saw nothing offensive in the use of Confederate symbols in state flags. Some 71 percent of Southern whites wanted the symbols kept. Most interestingly, 68 percent of black Americans said they did not find the flag personally offensive, though 31 percent did. (Presumably the young black men who chased down and murdered Mr. Westerman were among those offended.) These figures suggest that the issue today is an artificial one, agitated for the sake of agitation and to assist the otherwise flagging careers of certain politicians.
Certainly the efforts to suppress state flags have failed, as in Georgia, despite the entire weight of the civil rights establishment and the Atlanta plutocrats. And since the United States Senate offended the United Daughters of the Confederacy over the flag, the number of chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans founded or revived has doubled.
I think a number of things happened amid resistance to forced integration to bring the flag into use as the chief symbol of Southern identity. I remember my own father and uncles returning from World War II with stories of how Southerners, particularly rural and working-class ones, were denigrated and ridiculed by conscripted urbanites for their speech, manners, attitudes. There was a general cultural attack at the time on “hillbillies.” This was the beginning of their sectional consciousness, which had hardly existed before. It was after this that we began to display the flag from the front porch. It was ten years before Brown v. Board of Education, and our actions had nothing to do with the Dixiecrat movement or with football.
Nor has time and the success of the civil rights movement diminished the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern identity. On the contrary, the fact that the United States is increasingly a multicultural empire rather than a federal republic will make ethnic identities, including the Southern, even sharper in the future, and their negotiation much more complex. Imagine, for instance, the struggles over symbols that are in the offing in a few years, when Hispanics will be a larger minority than blacks.
I have often spoken to meetings of the SCV, UDC, Civil War roundtables, various heritage groups, all places full of defenders and displayers of the battle flag, and my impression is that for most of these good Americans the flag is a symbol not of white supremacy but of identification of their own ancestors and heritage and an affirmation of their own identity. For those interested in extending the civil rights movement, I suggest that you find another and more constructive battle to fight, and one that you have some hope of winning, because you will not win this one.
The Chicago press reported last year that a Mr. Ernest A. Griffin, a black man of advanced age and a grandson of a member of the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, owns part of the land which was once the Camp Douglas prison, where some 6,000 Confederate soldiers are buried who died of starvation, disease, exposure, and neglect. Mr. Griffin flies the battle flag in honor of these men, disdaining criticism.
Last May, the United States and Confederate flags were displayed and trooped together at a memorial service for the POWs who perished at Camp Douglas, jointly sponsored by the Confederate POW Society and the reenactors of the 29th United States Colored Infantry. The program included an invocation by a black pastor, the Reverend Leon Perry, speeches about Camp Douglas, and a series of talks on Native American Confederates, Hispanic Confederates, Jewish Confederates, and African-American Confederates, in most cases delivered by descendants of the same. Then there was the main address by Mr. Walter Kennedy, an energetic, color-blind defender of everything Southern: “Confederate Diversity: Our Common Ground.” The program concluded with Mr. Kennedy’s presentation of an award to Mr. Griffin and the singing of “Dixie” by another black American, Mr. Al Ingram.
Much of our present unease comes from a sense of threatened identities and the scars of past conflicts. But it seems to me that our future, if it is to be a happy one, will be in the direction of the reconciliation and mutual respect for all our identities offered by the example of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Griffin, and not in useless confrontations from which no one can gain.