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When Southern Heritage Is a Lost Cause

| September 29, 2013

'Heritage' paraphernalia. (Gerald Figal)

‘Heritage’ paraphernalia. (Gerald Figal)

Hard to believe that as we head into the autumn of year 2013, we still have to endure people who cloak their racism in Confederate symbols, insisting that they are simply honoring their “Southern Heritage.” The determination of some to keep the name of Jacksonville’s Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, discussed here by contributor Julie Delegal, is just one example of a chorus of people living small, angry lives.

Confederate battle flags on pickup trucks, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee bumper stickers–and let’s not forget the eloquent “Kiss My Rebel Ass”—all mean the same thing: Old times, when white Christian males were in charge, are not forgotten. And just as surely as their chosen symbols profess a sentimental attachment to an era of racist brutality, they insist that what they really pine for is the Old South of country roads, shady front porches and long, lazy afternoons at the fishing hole. Yeah, right.

For some politicians there is mileage to be gained in catering to this pseudo-nostalgia. Former Virginia governor and Senator George Allen was a big proponent of displaying the Confederate flag and proclaiming various Confederate history and heritage days in his racially polarized state. It was only his appalling “Macaca” comment, directed at an Indian-American in his audience, which finally did him in.

Some years back I had an encounter with Tom Price, who is today a congressman representing Georgia’s prosperous north Atlanta suburbs, and vice-chairman of the House Budget Committee. Back when I ran into him he was a state senator, and the big issue of the day was whether the Georgia flag should be changed to remove its dominant element, the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag. Those lobbying to keep the flag intact were fond of saying that the stars and bars were an important reminder of lives lost in the Civil War. But the Georgia legislature only added the Confederate image to the state flag in 1956, as a symbol of defiance toward Federal laws requiring school integration.

As it happened, on the day I ran into Price, who had just left a speaking engagement at my daughters’ elementary school, he had been quoted in the Atlanta Constitution, saying he hadn’t made up his mind yet about the flag. I introduced myself as a parent, and then asked him what exactly he didn’t get about the issue. His practiced politician’s smile vanished. “You just came out of a school full of kids of different races and ethnicities,” I said to him. “How would you explain to them a flag that honors those who were willing to destroy the greatest country on earth in order to retain the right to own other human beings?”

Now, Price is not a stupid man—he is an orthopedic surgeon—but he was clearly groping for a response in the face of an unexpected challenge in what he had thought was friendly territory. “The Civil War wasn’t only about slavery,” he sputtered, then added, “and I’m originally from Michigan,” as if being a northerner added weight to his absurd pronouncement. As my jaw dropped open, Price suddenly remembered a very urgent appointment and scurried away.

Here’s a bulletin for Tom Price and anyone else who tries to rewrite history and portray the nation’s bloodiest conflict as a difference of opinion over states’ rights: The Civil War was about whether slavery would endure in the South and whether it would spread to new territories. And proudly displaying the Confederate battle flag on your car, your truck, your business, or your bathroom wall reveals one thing: You are chock full of nostalgia for a time when black people were chattel and more than half a million men died on the way to erasing that stain from our history. Oh yes, Price voted to keep the flag with its symbol of hate.

If you think that making an issue of things like flags and bumper stickers is tiresome and unnecessary, think again. The sentiment that moves someone to reverently display symbols of the Confederacy is not far removed from the vile dialogue that takes place on white supremacist Websites like the Vanguard News Network. The internet allows like-minded bigots to find each other in cyberspace and reinforce each other’s twisted, paranoid view of the world.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the organization that monitors hate groups, recently reported on a young man, the son of a former Ku Klux Klan leader, who made the brave decision to publicly disavow his father’s racist beliefs. The response to this conversion, on white supremacist websites, was swift and ugly. Wrote one hater on the Vanguard News Network: “He is now an open enemy of the survival of the race.” The message was signed: “N.B. Forrest.”

Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.

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26 Responses for “When Southern Heritage Is a Lost Cause”

  1. satan.d.worldonfire says:

    To assume what people think.. Less than 10% percent of southerners were slave owners. You had to be rich to own slaves. So if not states rights what were they fighting for

  2. one who knows says:

    I have always thought it nonsensical in the South when people who take pride in CONFEDERATE FLAGS BREATHE USA IN THE SAME SENTENCE.

  3. Outsider says:

    Well, I’m sure those who display the Confederate flag for reasons other than showing their support of slavery owe you a deep debt of gratitude for setting them straight.

  4. Will says:

    Well said Steve. A lot of folks seem to dance diplomatically around the issues. You’re playing a different tune…

  5. are you serious says:

    I proudly display the American, Florida and the Confederate flag in my yard and, I have a very racially blended family. Love knows no color, race, or sex. However, I am extremely offended that you are implying that because I proudly display the Confederate flag in my yard that I may be the least bit racist or in other words, what you really are implying—hate African Americans– I believe that I can speak for many true, Sons and Daughters of the South when I say that the Confederate flag is simply a tribute to the many lives lost. True Southern people are one of a kind. We love our neighbors, we say Grace, we are respectful, and we always bless someones heart. The Civil War erupted over states’ rights, not slavery. The South was mostly people in favor of states’ rights, and the North was mostly people who wanted the national government to have more power over the states. Please, learn your history before you judge or imply anything like you have again. If seeing the Confederate flag brings the slightest bit of hate in your heart, you may need to do some serious soul searching. You have lost a faithful reader, as I will never visit Flaglerlive again.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Ignoring the convenient fact that the only reason that “state’s rights” was an issue was because the north wanted to end slavery…

      “State’s rights” was the way to sell the war to the non-slave owning masses in the south.

      “True Southern people are one of a kind. We love our neighbors, we say Grace, we are respectful, and we always bless someones heart.” — So how is it then that the region has such a history of ugly racism?

  6. ThreeEighty says:

    Sounds like the author would like a violation of our first amendment. Good luck, not gonna happen.

  7. David Shampine says:

    Steve, I agree with your article.

    But, I’m also smart enough to understand that tolerance and racism isn’t a one-sided issue. Look a the the Black Panther Party, New Black Liberation Militia, the NAACP, and many others. I’m sure that there are a lot of other flags out there that represent the racist views of a few (not all) African Americans. Just as the Confederate flag represents as few (not all) southerners.

    Like a smart man once said “You can’t fix the problem unless you are willing to acknowledge that it exists”.

    In one hand we vilify and crucify white racist organizations (as we should); and in the other hand either ignore or support black racist organizations.

    Maybe we should be vilifying and crucifying both??????

    • Nancy N. says:

      ” I’m sure that there are a lot of other flags out there that represent the racist views of a few (not all) African Americans.”

      Can you name one? Cause all I see when I drive around here are cars plastered with the Confederate flag. Seems to me like that is the big problem.

      • Matty B says:

        The Black Panther Party, New Black Panther Party, Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, and the Nation Of Islam, they all have flags and are deemed hate groups against Whites/Caucasians. Also don’t forget that as Americans under our flag we drove the Native Americans off their lands and forced them to stay in Tribal areas and we also imprisoned Japanese and German Americans during the war.

    • anonymous says:

      @David Shampine – Black people never enslaved white people in this county. Stop trying to rationalize it.

  8. Tator says:

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIXIE FOREVER !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Linda says:

    Well said, indeed. I get so tired of hearing the war was not about slavery. What a pretextual argument, and an insult to our intelligence. Yes, we all know about the tariffs issues and state’s rights arguments. But they still owned and abused people would have continued to do so as the history of discrimination raged and rages on. Shame on them.
    I always remind kids that there will always be haters, to be careful, and to prove them wrong and show them to be the haters they are.
    Be safe everyone.

  10. Nomad says:

    WOW….so if you display the Rebel Flag you are a racist? Nice narrow minded, misinformed article.

  11. Jennifer says:

    You quickly reference Robert E. Lee in your misinformed opinion of Southern roots and the Confederate flag. I would say most people equate General Lee with the South during the Civil War. While you wax poetically on “old times when white christian males were in charge,” you do not note that General Lee did not own slaves. However, Ulysses S. Grant did own slaves and continued to own them until 1865, a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation….why? Because the state his family farm was in was not one of the states in rebellion to the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was first read on Sept. 22, 1862 in which slaves in states rebelling from the Union would be freed 122 days from Sept. 22. So others further North could continue to own slaves. President Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Going back further the US Supreme Court decided in 1857 that no slave or descendent of a slave could be a US citizen. Dred Scott’s case furthered the social and political divide between the North and the South. While the rednecks that are “uneducated” may use the flag, it is not a symbol of hate and ignorance you imply to the majority. Unfortunately, it is the minority that makes everyone look bad. But we should not let the minority dictate the actions of the majority. We must also take our history and preserve it, warts an all. If we try to sweep over the past and forget what has happened, we are doomed to repeat history.

    • Corey Meyer says:

      Grant did not own slaves until the end of the war…he freed the one slave he did own in 1859.

      Lee did own slaves from his father-in-law and reluctantly freed them after five years in accordance with the will of his father in law.

  12. Will says:

    David Shampine – you bring up good points for discussion, but I wouldn’t call the NAACP a “racist” organization. It was founded with blacks, whites and even native Americans on the board to try to achieve equal rights for all, without denigrating any.

  13. Sherry Epley says:

    I have looked for other major reasons for our Civil War. “States Rights” do enter the picture, but the Southern States seceded from the Union of states primarily to protect their “rights” to OWN and often abuse other human beings. The Southern economy was largely based on profits from the inhumane, forced labor of slaves. The Confederate flag is a symbol of the “belief” in the States Rights to profit from the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings, whether the Southerner actually owned slaves or not.

    Yes, there may be other symbols of different racist groups, be we should keep in mind that the decendants of slaves in our country wear very real spiritual wounds from a brutal family ancestry. Yes, racism exists in the black race also, but African Americans did not enslave whites. The white race still has the upper hand in the USA. . . and the white race is still using their power to disenfranchise the black race in many ways.

  14. Geezer says:

    The Confederate flag (or rebel flag) wavers don’t bother me in the least.
    Many people have a need to tell the world about their backgrounds.
    I see many Puerto Rican, Portugese, and Jamaican emblems, flags and tee-shirts around Palm Coast.

    The way I see it, these folks are just telling the world about their roots and lifestyles.
    Why they feel this is necessary–I don’t know.
    To each his own I say.

    The Confederate flag is actually very pretty. There’s a CB radio (I forget the brand) that has a Confederate motif. Another thing I have to add is that I’ve seen African-Americans displaying the rebel flag.
    One particular place is a blood lab here in Palm Coast, and the flag belongs to a black phlebotomist.

  15. Matty B says:

    There are people who fly/own the “confederate flag” or “rebel flag” whatever you want to call it to preserve their southern culture, there are also those who do not like blacks and use it as a hate symbol. I did some research on this topic and was quite amazed as to what I found.

    1) I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. – First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861

    2) The Civil war was from April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865. Slavery was “Ended” on Jan 1, 1863- approx 18 months after the war started.

    3) Slavery was present in the North till the early to mid 1800’s dates depended and fluctuated from state to state.

    4) People who do not like the flag say it represents hate, people who like the flag say it represents heritage. The same as people who are for or against the American flag, prayer, the word God on American currency, Pledge of Allegiance and the list goes on.

    5) You who are against the “Confederate/Rebel Flag” is it just because of the slavery issue? If so we should also outlaw the Japanese flag, Chinese, well heck lets just out law ALL flags other than our own! That will surely show the world how tolerant we are.

    @ Nancy M – Can you name one? Cause all I see when I drive around here are cars plastered with the Confederate flag. Seems to me like that is the big problem. —The Black Panther Party, New Black Panther Party, Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, and the Nation Of Islam are all deemed Race driven Black only groups according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI.

    P.S. I do not own or fly a “Rebel/Confederate” Flag.

  16. Charles Gardner says:

    Then there’s Ole Miss.

  17. Genie says:

    I have met many bigots in Palm Coast and can say for a fact that most are from the north and not the south.

    How about we just try to get along and love one another, shall we?

    With all this talk of racism being stoked, it must be extremely uncomfortable for the hardworking black families who are our neighbors here in Palm Coast.

    Let’s rise above it, or at least try, shall we? Love thy neighbor as thyself was the way most of us were raised, thank goodness.

  18. Tillie says:

    Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
    Old times there are not forgotten,
    Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.

    In Dixie Land, where I was born in,
    early on one frosty mornin’,
    Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.

    I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
    In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
    to live and die in Dixie.
    Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
    Away, away, away down south in Dixie

  19. ... says:

    There is no written record of what was said on the House and Senate floors, when the 1956 flag bill was introduced and passed. Nor does Georgia provide for a statement of legislative intent when a bill is introduced. A subsequent research report, by the Georgia Senate, states that Support for the 1956 flag change can be broken down into two basic arguments: the change was made in preparation for the Civil War centennial, which was five years away; or that the change was made to commemorate and pay tribute to the Confederate veterans of the Civil War.[5] Years later, critics expressed belief that the flag was adopted as a symbol of racist protest, citing legislation passed in 1956 which included bills rejecting Brown v. Board of Education and comments by then-Governor Marvin Griffin that “The rest of the nation is looking to Georgia for the lead in segregation.” [6][7] However, there is no reference in official 1956 documents, nor contemporary comments from legislative supporters, nor from the flags designer, John Sammons Bell, linking the flag to Brown v. Board of Education or a racist protest.[8]

    for the record..

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