In June of this year a young man, born and raised in South Carolina, entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat for a while in a Bible study group at the historically black church (one of the oldest in the South, existing since a time when it was illegal for African-Americans to organize their own congregations) and then, when the group paused to pray, he took out a gun and murdered nine of his fellow citizens.
At the moment of the shootings, this young man made white supremacist statements and in the investigation that followed the shooting, his website and background revealed further such beliefs. On his website were photographs of him posing with a handgun and the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (more generally known as just the “Confederate Flag”).
At the same time this investigation was underway, the state government of South Carolina mourned the death of its citizens by lowering the flags above the State House grounds to half mast. However, the Confederate flag flying above the nearby Confederate Monument were not (state law prohibited alteration of the flag without a 2/3 vote of the legislature). In the light of the nature of the shootings, many began to question whether it was appropriate in any context for the Confederate Flag to fly above government grounds within the United States.
If the Confederacy was founded upon an inherent denial of racial equality, then the flying of the flag of that Confederacy has no place in modern American society. If that flag is a symbol of the very thought processes that lead a young American to murder nine of his fellow citizens, then even the most implicit and tacit government sanction of that symbol becomes inappropriate. Is the Confederate flag that symbol?
Heritage and History
I know some who genuinely see the Confederate flag as a symbol of a heritage worth preserving. Because they themselves don’t espouse views like the shooter and don’t associate closely with people like him, they don’t recognize just what the flag represents for so many. However, that’s a reason for understanding their support, not for preserving the flag. They see it as a representation of all that “The South” (as a cultural entity) stands/stood for, not merely as a representation of the specific institution of the Confederacy.
This, however, is a misguided view. The flag is a governmental symbol of the Confederate States of America. It was carried by its armies as they conducted a war against the United States of America. From a legal-historical standpoint, the flag is one of two things: either it is the symbol of a traitorous, seditious, illegal rebellion or it’s the symbol of a foreign nation – in either case, it has no business being displayed by any government within in the US.
Far more substantively, in both cases it is a representation of an institution explicitly founded to preserve and maintain the practice of slavery. For all of the “States’ Rights” and “Lost Cause” mythology that has been woven around the Confederacy, its very foundation was the preservation of slavery as an institution. The Constitution of the Confederacy is in most places a verbatim copy of the US Constitution except in regard to slavery. The primary rights that the states wished to protect from federal interference were those which allowed the maintenance of the institution of slavery.
Secession Was About Slavery
As others have highlighted, the Southern States that would eventually form the Confederacy actually sought to curtail states rights – specifically the rights of Northern States to ignore the Fugitive Slave Act and attempt in any way to limit their practice of slavery.
To appreciate the real reason the Confederacy came into being, the real reason for secession (and the war it birthed), one need look no further than the secession declarations of Confederate States themselves.
- But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. (South Carolina)
- In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation. (South Carolina)
- The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. (Georgia, opening lines)
- In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. (Mississippi, opening lines)
- She [Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. (Texas)
- The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article [the fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution. (Texas)
In March of 1861, a few weeks after the Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln and just a few weeks prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Alexander Stevens, Vice President of the newly formed Confederate States of America delivered a speech now known as “The Cornerstone Speech.” In it he laid out the reasons for the existence of the Confederacy, the reasons for their “present revolution.” Here are his words:
The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…
The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically…the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away…Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.
The idea that slave-holding states wanted general economic, commercial, or legal freedoms is shallow and false in every meaningful sense – they wanted the right to continue slavery as a foundational economic and (by necessity) societal institution, and thus wanted “States’ Rights” in order to do so. That is the legacy of the Confederacy, that is the heritage that the Confederate flag represents. The heritage of the Confederacy is that of subjugation of one group of humans to another and the belief that one group of humans is inherently inferior and another group inherently superior.
The South is not the Confederacy and the Confederacy not the South
The good and positive parts of Southern heritage – the rich literary, legal, academic, and artistic legacy – all of that existed before the Confederacy (even the bravery and loyalty of men who fought for their homes and families rather than “for slavery” – that existed independent of the Confederacy itself). Not only is the Confederate flag – the flag of an institution founded upon the preservation of hateful and oppressive inequity – not a necessary symbol of that good and positive heritage, it’s a grotesque stain upon it and one that, as long as it is maintained, will inexorably taint that legacy.
There is a reason the Confederate Flag is used a symbol by white supremacist groups, a reason why the Ku Klux Klan is so tied to (and deliberate invokes) our nation’s Confederate past. When terrorists and hate groups revere the same institutions being remembered and lionized by governmental monuments, it’s evidence of a grave problem within our society.
That there are multiple monuments and a state park named in memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK, should be troubling to anyone. When Confederate symbology is still reflected in seven state flags in the South, that should be troubling. When the people of Mississippi vote by a 2:1 margin to preserve the Confederate elements of their state flag, that should be troubling.
The Confederacy was founded to preserve a fundamentally unequal and iniquitous institution. Its symbols belong in historical memory along with every sentiment embodied by that political institution and any attempt to maintain them (however genuinely innocuous) is inherently harmful to every citizen.
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