Retiring the Colors

July 10, 2015

When applied to the Confederate battle flag, the “heritage not hate” slogan all too often seems to be spouted out of only one side of a Southern drawler’s mouth, while the other side, given the proper audience and circumstance, may be saying something altogether different. That said, there is some truth to the notion of a Southern regional pride that, to me at least, is as inescapable as the humidity of a summer south of the Mason-Dixon.

When I was a boy, I had a Confederate battle flag tacked up on the wall of my bedroom. I don’t recall when or where I got it. It was likely a gift shop souvenir from one of the many Civil War battlefield site tours that my Dad took our family on after we moved to Virginia in the late ’60’s. All I remember is that the flag was a constant presence on my wall as I passed through boyhood, into my teen years, and then on to college.*

Some of you who are reading this are likely aghast at my flag revelation. “I thought I knew him! How could he be one of … them? How could he have displayed that symbol of treason, and prejudice, and hate?”

The thing is, I did no such thing. Though they looked the same, the flag that I had tacked on my wall was not the same as the flag of the KKK, George Wallace, and Dylann Roof. It was, indeed, a symbol of heritage – a nod to the place from whence my people came. Just as my grandmother’s United Daughters of the Confederacy membership certificate was prominently displayed in a frame on her wall, my Confederate battle flag held a prized spot on mine. Not unlike my grandmother, I bought into the Lost Cause narrative to a certain extent. I displayed the flag because it conjured up ineffable notions of duty, loyalty, chivalry, tradition, and family – with perhaps a bit of adolescent rebellion thrown in for good measure. Slavery, prejudice, and oppression didn’t enter into my thinking. In later years I did come to wrestle with the knowledge that the awful institution of slavery had existed under that flag. But, I knew as well that the Stars and Stripes had flown over the United States’ mistreatment of Native Americans in the 19th century, and of Japanese Americans during World War II, and nobody was suggesting getting rid of Old Glory.

In fact, few seemed to be suggesting getting rid of the Confederate battle flag, either. It was everywhere when I was growing up – bedroom walls, keychains, t-shirts, beach towels, bumperstickers. It was even on prime time TV, on the roof of the General Lee on “The Dukes of Hazzard” – and nobody ever called Bo and Luke Duke racists!

That has all changed, however. No amount of Southern hospitality and gentility can overcome the fact that the bad guys have won this battle. And no, I’m not talking about Sherman’s army and its scorched-earth campaigns, or opportunistic Yankee carpetbaggers. I’m talking about hate-filled racists like Dylann Roof. I’m talking about white supremacists of all stripes, whether they are driven by mental illness or plain and simple ignorance. Just as Hitler co-opted the sacred religious symbol of the swastika for his Third Reich, Roof and his ilk have co-opted the Confederate battle flag for their own vile purposes. It has no business flying on government property, and I congratulate South Carolina for taking it down.

As for the rest of us, it rightfully comes down to an individual decision. Those who advocate making it illegal to display the Confederate battle flag are off-base and need to read the 1st Amendment. No, we are all free to fly the flag – or not – as our conscience dictates.

And, it’s important to remember that anyone who chooses to fly it, or wear it, or sport it on a car bumper, may not mean any harm by doing so. But, it’s important to recognize as well that the choice to do so is probably causing harm, intended or not.
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*The flag stayed on my wall until one night when some of my fraternity brothers snuck into my room, cut it into 4 pieces, then re-tacked the pieces to the wall, together with a note questioning my patriotism, fraternal allegiance, and probably my manhood as well. My midwestern roommate was probably relieved, though I think he was still a bit unnerved by the Blue Oyster Cult and Jim Morrison posters that remained unscathed.