It’s Not Just a Flag, It’s a Message

By Sharon Mullen

By Sharon Mullen

So much has been said recently about the Confederate flag, especially due to the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. It is sad for such a tragic incident to have to take place in order to refocus a spotlight on the controversial flag and whether or not it should be flown anywhere in the United States. Discussing this issue is uncomfortable, polarizing, but necessary.

Arguments fill social media sites with some people shouting that the Confederate flag is not about racism and others professing that is what the flag is totally about. One thing is for sure, if you do not know your history, you are bound to repeat mistakes of that history. Looking at some of the statements put out in the blogosphere, it is obvious there are some who are speaking on the subject but they have not done their homework.

7-star First National flag of the Confederate States of America, 1861 (Zaricor Flag Collection)

Let’s look at the history of the flag in question. First of all, it is not the Confederate flag that has everyone up in arms. It is actually the Confederate battle flag, with the blue X and the stars within. This is the flag embraced by white supremacists and racist hate mongers as a symbol representing their stance against minorities, mostly blacks. But do you know that is not THE Confederate flag? No, the Confederate flag, actually named the First National flag of the Confederate States of America, contains 3 stripes, 2 red and 1 white, with 7 stars in a field of blue which grew to 13 stars as other states joined the Confederacy. You see this flag sometimes depicted in Civil War paintings except those which show actual battle scenes. When most people think of the Confederacy, it is not this flag that comes to mind. People think of the battle flag, Ku Klux Klan members waving the flag, racist terrorists burning the homes of black people riding off waving the battle flag, and the flag waved by white supremacists supporting the White Power movement coming to a city near you. It is that flag that has black people so uncomfortable, so angry, so worked up.

Calvaryman, Confederate Memorial (docsouth.unc.edu)

Calvaryman, Confederate Memorial (docsouth.unc.edu)

North Carolina does not have the Confederate battle flag flying outside of its State Capitol as South Carolina does. But the state of North Carolina does honor and memorialize the Confederacy twice a year. January 19 is the birthday of one of the Confederacy’s most notorious generals, Robert E. Lee. May 10 is Confederate Memorial Day. On these 2 days every year, the First National flag of the Confederate States of America is flown over the state Capitol in Raleigh. It has been this way since the 1960’s with little fanfare and yet also little protest. According to the state Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, since 1992 there have been no complaints formally raised about this practice. That was the year when around 100 protestors gathered at the Capitol to protest the raising of the flag.

There are bronze and granite statues and many other memorials placed in homage to the Confederacy and its members all over North Carolina, on state grounds as well as inside state facilities and parks. Many feel the memorials are appropriate in order to capture and report our nation’s history so that we will never forget and not repeat the mistakes of the past. But it’s different when you fly a flag over a state building or at a state sponsored program. A flag is a non-verbal statement acting almost as your mission statement. It represents what you stand for. Every state in the union has a flag that tells of the people of the great state in which it flies. So what does it say about North Carolina when this Confederate flag flies over the state Capitol twice a year? What does it say indeed?

There are some southerners who will tell you that the Confederate battle flag is not a symbol of hatred or racism or even slavery. They will tell you that it represents southern pride, their heritage, and all things southern, and it has nothing to do with black people. I believe them to be well intended individuals who are just misguided and a little naive. Because I try to believe the best of people first before accusing them of anything negative, I choose to believe they just have not had the history lesson and they really believe what they are saying. Maybe I can help them out a bit.

The Confederate States were composed of the 11 states which seceded from the Union of the United States starting in 1860. These states, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, had their own government and thus adopted their own money and a flag as well. The main reason these states took this action was slavery. These southern states insisted on preserving slavery sighting state’s rights as the cornerstone of this belief. Because the Union, the official governing body of the United States, refused to allow these states to continue the egregious practice, the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861 and lasted until the Confederacy was defeated on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Battle after battle was fought by brave soldiers on both sides, all while carrying their prospective flags. The Confederate battle flag, the Southern Cross, was carried by gray uniformed Confederate soldiers onward into the fray, with company after company fighting until they had to surrender their flag and their position to the Union. Every motivation, every belief held by the Confederacy was represented in that battle flag and the National flag that hung in all Confederate buildings at the time. Not only did the Confederates believe in the states’ rights to govern themselves, but specifically that they had the right to continue the legalized enslavement of other human beings who after all, in their minds, were inferior and next to animals in the first place. This fact is not in dispute. After the defeat, the flags were removed. The Union had prevailed.

But just because the Civil War was fought and lost by the Confederacy does not mean the flags were never flown anywhere again. Many southern states even after slavery was rendered illegal still adopted the Confederate flag into their official state flags or paid homage to the flag in an official capacity in some way. After the war, through Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, white people who still believed in white supremacy latched on to the Confederate flag and began using it as a way to assert their belief that slavery should have never ended, that blacks are indeed inferior and therefore should not be given the same rights as white people, that there should not be any “race mixing.” Whenever groups professing this belief would gather to announce their stance and gain publicity, what flag was positioned prominently before the radio host or TV camera? The Confederate battle flag.

Confederate Memorial building, Hillsborough, NC

Confederate Memorial building, Hillsborough, NC

So now, in 2015, what does this all mean? Can we the people cast aside a flag that some view as a positive symbol of southern pride because a portion of the population view it as a symbol of great hate and oppression? Why yes, I say. Because those who say these flags and anything dealing with the Confederacy represents a Southern pride are being either very naive or they espouse some belief that their Confederate ancestors were right. Pride indicates something positive, something that evokes good will or a good feeling. Can these people actually feel like the idea of the Confederacy was a government or way of life that evoked good will and a good positive feeling? Well, not for black people it didn’t. And pride is not something that evokes a good feeling at the expense of others. There is a reason that whenever a white supremacist is profiled in the media, somewhere either in their home or their vehicle or in a photo of them there is more often a Confederate flag somewhere in their midst. And I am sure it is not because that flag represents a feel good southern pride either.

Monuments and other sculptures, photographs, paintings or pamphlets relaying the history of the Civil War and the fight to end slavery should remain in their proper places and displayed as such. Those who fought on the side of the Confederacy left behind families who have a right to have their loved ones remembered for their valor even if they fought on the side of the darkest time in the history of this country. But to fly the flags at state buildings sends a totally different message. It says this state honors the belief behind the Confederacy with no regard for the memories, the feelings, the images of the Civil Rights Movement and the horrors of racism and segregation that blacks have endured for many years, and still continue to.

KKK members marching against desegregation carrying the Confederate battle flag

KKK members marching against desegregation carrying the Confederate battle flag

No, these flags do not need to be raised in memorial of anything. They should be properly displayed in museums along with the Confederate Constitution so that the truth about the beliefs of the Confederacy can be seen for generations to come. The story of these flags and this Confederate way of life needs to be told so that we as a country never forget and repeat the mistakes of slavery and legalized terrorism.

So while South Carolina deals with whether or not to fly the Confederate battle flag over their State Capitol, we in North Carolina need to insist that no Confederate flags be flown at our Capitol as well. Not for two days a year. Not ever.

 

Sharon Mullen is an Ohio native and graduate of Michigan State University. She is also a marketing and promotions professional who enjoys poetry, music and the arts. She can be reached at: Sharon@emergenconline.com