Imagine that after the emancipation of the slaves, the whites in the South put their attachment to this peculiar institution behind them and, in the paternalistic manner appropriate to their supposed innate superiority, made a concerted effort to improve the lot of their former slaves. Imagine them making a sincere effort to educate Afro-American children, as much as they could be educated, establishing local governments that protected the rights of all citizens, and creating separate public and private facilities for whites and “coloreds” that were truly equal. This fantasy is pretty close to the southern society as I imagined it as a child growing up in Richmond, Va in the 1950s. In such a world, the native talents of African Americans, not only in music and athletics, but in all areas of human endeavor, would have flourished, and the fallacy of white supremacy would have soon become obvious. There would have been no need for a civil rights movement. In such a world, the Confederate Battle Flag could be used to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers who fought under it, and few would object.
However, reality gave us something different. Soon after Reconstruction ended, things became ugly. Perhaps Ida Wells described it best:
Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching, that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life. But Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart had been lynched in Memphis, one of the leading cities of the South… and they had committed no crime against white women. This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’
I have no power to describe the feeling of horror that possessed every member of the race in Memphis when the truth dawned upon us that the protection of the law which we had so long enjoyed was no longer ours; all this had been destroyed in a night, and the barriers of the law had been thrown down, and the guardians of the public peace and confidence scoffed away into the shadows, and all authority given into the hands of the mob, and innocent men cut down as if they were brutes.
Lynching was just the bleeding edge of a systematic reign of terror inflicted on the descendants of slaves throughout the South. Everywhere they turned, blacks faced repression. The prisons became a source of uncompensated labor in a system that was every bit as vicious as slavery. Jails were kept full through a combination of by discriminatory Jim Crow laws and grossly unfair law enforcement. The separate schools and other facilities provided for “colored” people were vastly inferior. Voting rights were suppressed. For black people in the South, freedom and democracy were but distant dreams.
When the federal government, after years of pressure from the civil rights movement, finally began to protect the rights of its African American citizens, white southerners adopted the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia as the symbol of resistance.
The battle flag was never adopted by the Confederate Congress, never flew over any state capitols during the Confederacy, and was never officially used by Confederate veterans’ groups. The flag probably would have been relegated to Civil War museums if it had not been resurrected by the resurgent KKK and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election.
In 1962, South Carolina defiantly raised this flag above its state capital dome, as if to proudly declare to all the world that, in South Carolina, white supremacy reigns!
Apologists for the flag are right that most of the soldiers fighting under General Robert E. Lee had nothing to do with slavery; they were just defending their homeland. But the story of this flag did not end in1865. It continues to this day. The Confederate Battle flag is not the flag of slavery; it is the flag of segregation, of white supremacy, and of resistance to federal authority.
Dylann Roof latched onto the most hateful part of his southern heritage: the lawless terror that Ida Wells was decrying so long ago. Some want to label him an isolated madman, but he is part of a long tradition. He even repeated the old pretext, “You rape our women,” as he killed those nine people in church. When confronted with the picture of this young man, deadly phallic symbol in hand, posing proudly with the Confederate Flag, thoughtful conservatives finally understood that the government needs to disassociate itself with this symbol of “of our all too recent, all too awful history.”
Reactionaries cry out in pain and try to deflect the conversation in any way they can. However, the flag has already been removed from the dome of the statehouse, and soon it will be removed from the statehouse grounds entirely. True, this is only a symbolic gesture, but symbols matter.
Nikki Haley said, “The murderer now locked up in Charleston said he hoped his actions would start a race war. We have an opportunity to show that not only was he wrong, but that just the opposite is happening.”
Let us pray that she is right and that this symbolic act marks a new beginning for the South, and for our country as a whole.