I intended to come to this topic a while from now, but via Civil War Memory I’ve come upon this video that deserves wide viewing. It includes a racial epithet, so far warning there.
As a white guy from the North, who never had to endure anything like what this man and millions of others endured, I don’t feel that I deserve to say I see the flag the same way he does. No one has ever screamed a racial epithet at me. I didn’t live through segregation.
But when someone flies the Confederate flag, tells me they think the South (always synonymous with the Confederacy) suffered a great wrong and ought to have won, pines for those old time values and the nation before Lincoln and the Republicans turned it into a centralized state, I look for the white hood too. I don’t know how many of these people do it consciously, but they all clearly hearken back to the days when white people had license to treat black people abominably. If they wanted to celebrate Southernness, itself a problematic concept, they could pick jazz or a riverboat or a magnolia or any number of other icons to mark the region. They chose instead the flag of a treasonous movement devoted to the preservation and expansion of slavery. They chose a flag that furthermore went up into attics and fell into disuse after the war, until it came time to fight the Civil Rights Movement.
How can anybody honestly claim innocence in light of that? On some level, they must know what they’re doing. They do not speak for all Southerners, or even all white Southerners. (Shelby Foote describes Southerners as the only Americans who lost a war, but of course four million black Southerners won that war. They didn’t count to Shelby. ) But they clearly mean to speak for them all. They claim Southern heritage as their own and set themselves up as its defenders, crying foul whenever someone points out the salient facts about the symbols they choose. One person might be clueless, but a movement of thousands had ample time and opportunity for a more learned person to step up and say “Hey guys, this symbol does not say what we want to say about ourselves.”
They still picked the Confederate Battle Flag. They knew what they meant and chose accordingly. They do see the cause of the Confederacy as their own, if not to restore slavery then at least to preserve white supremacy. The red in that flag came off the whipped, broken, and violated bodies of four million slaves and untold thousands who came after lynched, tortured, beaten, terrorized, disenfranchised, and intimidated by those carrying it. Ignoring those people sends the message that they don’t matter, aligning us with those who wronged them. That alignment still plays out every day in ways great and small.