Imagine yourself a “50-something” living today in a state that was part of the Old Confederacy. From your earliest days, you saw the Confederate flag flying virtually everywhere. The chances were also pretty good that you were told that the banner was a symbol of your state’s stand, along with others, against “northern aggression and coercion”. If that is indeed what you grew up seeing and believing, and you have never been disabused of such revisionist history, then you would most certainly have the strongest objections to seeing the “Stars and Bars” debased and even brought down, permanently, from many flag poles as is now happening.
The foregoing was offered as context for viewing our country’s antebellum period, the Civil War itself, and the long span of history that followed. In particular, the intent here is to set the record straight and expose southern mythology as a source of much misguided distress and obstruction right up to the present.
It is a matter of history that in defiance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves, the states that came to make up the Old Confederacy rebelled and announced their secession from the Union. They claimed that as per the US Constitution, they had the right to manage their own affairs, and that included keeping, using and abusing slaves. In effect, they mounted a “states’ rights” argument that they believed trumped slaves’ human rights. (1,2)
President Lincoln refused to accept their secession and to withdraw from Fort Sumpter in Charleston, South Carolina, a small garrison of Union troops that were stationed there. In response, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces under the command of General Beauregard, opened fire on the installation. Fire was returned though to little effect. The back-and-forth went on for about 33 hours, at which point, Beauregard’s emissary negotiated an honorable surrender. The US flag came down to eventually be replaced by the flag of the Confederate States of America.
What then followed was our Civil War that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. Rebel soldiers fought bravely but ultimately were defeated by a larger force that was better armed and better led. The Union was saved, the Stars and Bars came down and was stowed away lest its public presence remind the south of the stinging defeat it had suffered.
That flag was to remain largely out of sight for almost 100 years. But, in 1961, as civil rights legislation was being passed, it resurfaced to be flown as a symbol of southern defiance; a statement that giving African-Americans the unimpeded right to vote (3) was unacceptable. It has been likened to the states in the Old Confederacy giving the middle finger to the federal government, something it continues to do. But more on that in a moment.
This history brings us closer to the present with its new and more forceful demands that the Stars and Bars be brought down once again. In turn, that has raised the question “What does that flag symbolize?” To Southerners, like the fictitious one described in the blog’s first paragraph, it represents a “heritage…(a) culture”. But a heritage or culture of what? The truthful answer is slavery, forced indenture, bondage and at times, brutal mistreatment of African-Americans as no better than “chattel”. That is precisely the way that today’s living ancestors of the slaves see the banner.
Today, southern defiance has started to yield; at least partly. In South Carolina, the objectionable flag has been lowered from the state’s capitol grounds. The same thing is happening elsewhere. But, in the halls of our Congress that defiance persists. Indeed, it is the main source of legislative gridlock; a product of regular obstruction by Tea Party House members elected from many districts in the Old Confederacy. Though a distinct minority in their number, they have managed to block meaningful legislation and played a critical role in forcing a previous government shutdown over raising the debt ceiling. Their goal is to make the federal government unworkable and untrustworthy, all the better to leave governance up to individual states. There’s that middle finger again.
Will the south ever change? Not so long as the region’s history is revised to include the myth of Northern aggression and a violation of the Constitution. Not so long as the members of the populace there see African-Americans as their inferiors and undeserving of a seat at the table. Not so long as the populace continues to send to their state legislatures and the halls of the US Congress, individuals who cling to that egregiously false view of the past. In other words, not any time soon.
1. The inclusion of the Bill of Rights into the US Constitution made it abundantly clear that the rights of an individual, any individual, always overrule states’ rights.
2. When it came to ratifying the US Constitution, the only way to get delegates from the southern states to go along, was to designate slaves as 3/5 of a person and thus, without the rights of a full person. The Founding Fathers knew that eventually, that ugly compromise would have to be undone and full person status granted to the slaves and their descendants. It took more than 150 years before that happened.
3. Southern states used poll taxes and literacy tests as means of preventing African-Americans from voting. This same tactic is afoot once again, but now in the form of draconian voter ID laws that are supposed to prevent “voter fraud”. This in spite of both individual state and nationwide studies proving that it exists on so small scale as to have led to this legislation to being branded as a solution in search of a problem.