Reflections on a Symbol


First of all, I’m not a born-and-raised Southerner, so I’ll admit I’m coming from a different perspective from my friends who are. Still, I must admit I’ve been surprised at the passion, even vitriol at times, expressed in recent days about the Confederate flag.

I also admit I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write more on the matter, at least beyond what I added to a good friend’s thread on Facebook, where I was clearly in the minority. It kind of sucks the wind right out of me when I try to explain my position and nobody seems to “hear” me. Instead some fly off in their own direction, sharing their own versions of history and expounding on their fears of every other way “they” are taking over this country. Some even accuse anyone who disagrees of drinking the “Kool-Aid” of the “other side.”

But here I am, almost twelve hours and a good walk in the woods later, and I’ve decided to give it a try, though I may not hit the “Publish” button.

First of all, as I said in my comments on Facebook, everyone is entitled to their opinion, on this and every other matter. My opinion is simply that I don’t think the Confederate flag–a flag that represents racism to so many–should fly at a state capital building that represents all citizens of that state.

This does NOT mean that I think people who believe the flag represents the pride and heritage of the south shouldn’t display it. That does NOT mean that I think the government should forbid individuals from displaying the flag, nor do I believe the government has moved in that direction, though many seem to think they have.

True, some individuals and corporations have removed the Confederate flag, and that is their right to do so, just as it’s anyone’s right to no longer give those institutions more business.

Again, I’m not a Southerner, so I accept that I don’t “get” the sentiment attached to the flag. I do, however, understand the frustration expressed by those who want to fly the Confederate flag that their displaying it in no way means they are racists. My friends who want to fly the Confederate flag are NOT racists. They see the flag as a symbol of Southern pride.

Yet, I also understand how my African American friends are offended by the flag based on its history. Surely my Southern friends can understand this.

Yet, we are unable to find compromise.

I learned a few things about the Confederate flag today, and what I learned doesn’t seem to match many of the sentiments I heard expressed today.

I’ve taken the following facts from two articles:

The Confederate states went through three official flags during the four-year Civil War, but none of those three was the battle flag that’s at the center of the current controversy.

CF4The fourth flag, and the one about which there has been so much discussion, was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s army unit, as well as several other Confederate units at the end of the war. However, when the war ended, according to CNN, “Lee distanced himself from divisive symbols of a Civil War that his side lost.”

According to the CNN article, the fourth Confederate flag turned up only occasionally between the end of the Civil War and 1948, when:

South Carolina politician Strom Thurmond ran for president under the newly founded States Rights Democratic Party, also known as the Dixiecrats. The party’s purpose was clear: “We stand for the segregation of the races,” said Article 4 of its platform.

As desegregation progressed through the decades, more and more the flag became an emblem of white supremacist groups.

These are historical facts. Surely those who want to continue to fly the Confederate flag understand why it is offensive to many. Are we simply to ignore this?

I’ve been surprised at how little recognition I’ve seen (in fact, in a few instances, I’ve seen downright denial) of the symbolism of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

Again, I absolutely do not believe my friends who have a sentimental attachment to the Confederate flag are racists. Yet, I don’t understand how some of them seem unable to accept how many, particularly African Americans, may see anyone who flies the flag that way.

Part of the problem is that many refuse to see the “other side” and are entrenched in their own opinions and beliefs, seemingly unwilling to compromise.

I have an idea. Why not fly one of the three Confederate flags that existed BEFORE the fourth flag–the flag that is now so divisive? To my knowledge, none of those flags were used as symbols by racists.

I’d be interested to hear other ideas. So far, all I’ve seen is a bunch of name-calling and finger-pointing. We’ll never get anywhere that way.

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19 Responses to Reflections on a Symbol

  1. Anonymous says:

    I share a lot of your opinion, Jan. I neither was born in the south, yet have tried to understand the perspective from a southerners side (even though I have often not received the same treatment, being a “Damn Yankee” and all!) Just personally speaking, there is no amount of pride that I could possess that would lead me to do anything that would cause others to feel bad. I would get absolutely no satisfaction from that. But that’s just me. To each his own…
    As to your suggestion of flying one of the earlier flags, according to things I have read, they are even more divisive. The one pictured above in the middle is referred to as the Stainless Banner and was designed by William T. Thompson and according to the Los Angeles Times, this is what it stands for –

    “By 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia’s square battle flag was so popular among the Confederacy that it was incorporated into the upper left corner of the new flag. The white rectangle symbolizes the “supremacy of the white man,” according to William T. Thompson, the flag’s designer. “As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race,” Thompson wrote. The second flag faced criticism for being too white, with complaints that it could be mistaken for a truce sign in battle.”

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thank you for your comment, and especially thank you for the additional information on the previous flags of the Confederate. I didn’t know this information, and it alters my idea that perhaps a previous Confederate flag might fly.

  2. Jan, I agree with all your points, and was even discussing this with my husband today. There seems to be knee-jerk reactions and opinions one way or the other, and I applaud your willingness to endure any blowback to sharing yours.

    I think a lot of people are confusing the right of individuals to free speech given to us by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which would include the display of any symbol, flag, or emblem of their choosing on their personal property and persons versus the display by a government of a symbol that disenfranchises and continues to remind citizens of that same government of their past dehumanization and systematic oppression sanctioned by the very same government. If these sentiments are truly in the past, why venerate this symbol? Let the past go, and take the flags down at government buildings and landmarks.

    If an individual holds an affinity for this flag for sentimental, patriotic, or family pride reasons, they should feel free to continue to display, wear, and support their flag. Just like anyone who would like to display a cross, or a Star of David, or even a Swatiska has the right to. This is America and as individuals we have that right. But I think it would be naive to think that people will not project judgments against someone displaying a Confederate flag because of the connotations surrounding it.

    History should not be forgotten, so there should be places to display and discuss the flags and statues of Confederate leaders, but not necessarily venerated. We should take a lesson from the Germans who have made Nazi concentration camps into museums and memorials to neither deny nor revise history, but to face it and learn from it. I think there need to be more museums, landmarks, and archives to teach U.S. citizens or, as George Santayana said if we don’t learn from history we are destined to repeat it.
    I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War (I’m from Missouri) and I understand regional pride, but I’d like to think my biracial grandsons can grow up in a world where hate and systemic oppression will be a thing of the past, although the current continued divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, economic, and educational standing seem to make that a far off dream. Taking down Confederate flags over government entities would be a very tiny start, in my opinion.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thank you, Kristin. I agree about the knee-jerk reactions. I’ve been tempted to have several myself, not only with this topic but on several that often appear on social media. But knowing that this usually devolves the conversation, I try to make myself think about what the consequences of what I’m saying will be once I push “post” or “send.” Sometimes the potential “blowback” makes me hesitate to say anything at all, but more and more I tell myself we all have the right to speak, and we can’t just let those who “blowback” with vitriolic knee-jerk reactions be the ones who are heard.

      We should all be able to express our opinions with the realization that we’re not always going to agree, especially on a topic about which so many are passionate. But the only way we’ll move closer together is to learn how the “other side” feels and the only way we’ll do that is to speak as respectfully as possible, listen with an open mind and push through the discomfort.

  3. Thoughtful, compassionate post, Jan. I would expect nothing less from you. One of the most difficult concepts is, I think, that those we love and respect do not always share our opinions, there is division amongst us even in those core values that are so much a part of us we cannot separate from them without leaving gaping wounds in our souls. We grow in dialogue, in stretching to understand, and in sorting out the wheat from the chaff in our own values.
    Thank you for sharing this contemplative and beautifully written post.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Yes, that is a difficult concept, Pam, that those we love and respect don’t always agree. But I’m learning to accept that, and believe our world is a better place with disagreement, as long as it’s respectful. I don’t know that I’d want a world where everyone always agreed. 🙂

  4. frog5 says:

    Of possible relevance to understanding how we have arrived at this point in our racial relations:

    ‘The first, by the political scientist Larry Bartels, analyzed the move of the white working class away from Democrats, a move made famous in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Mr. Frank argued that working-class whites were being induced to vote against their own interests by the right’s exploitation of cultural issues. But Mr. Bartels showed that the working-class turn against Democrats wasn’t a national phenomenon — it was entirely restricted to the South, where whites turned overwhelmingly Republican after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon’s adoption of the so-called Southern strategy.

    ‘And this party-switching, in turn, was what drove the rightward swing of American politics after 1980. Race made Reaganism possible. And to this day Southern whites overwhelmingly vote Republican, to the tune of 85 or even 90 percent in the deep South.’

    Slavery’s Long Shadow – The New York Times:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/22/opinion/paul-krugman-slaverys-long-shadow.html

  5. Mona says:

    I could have written that, as it expresses my feeling and experience to a T, the only difference is I am a southerner born and raised in Alabama. I love my state, always have, always will, but I do not like the rebel flag on government property, its just not right.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thank you for your comment, Mona. That is the issue to me–whether or not the flag should fly on government property. Now, however, many have wondered about whether or not the White House should have shone in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision.

  6. John Longino says:

    I don’t understand the difference between the bona fides of a person who IS a white supremist and uses the St Andrews Cross flag as a symbol of his hatred because it is recognized as such, and a person who is not a white supremist, doesn’t hate, but flies the flag and does not care that it deeply offends others. My great grandfather fought under that flag.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Different symbols offend different people. Sometimes I think we’re all offended too easily. The difference i see with the Confederate flag is that by some people and groups, it continues to be a symbol of racism which not only offends, but often causes fear to many. Again, I believe it should remain an individual’s choice to fly the flag, but I don’t think it should be flown on the property of a government that represents all of its citizens.

  7. Dean says:

    This is an interesting read but I don’t think it differs a lot from all the others I’ve read.
    With all do respect I don’t believe any media outlet today is a good source of facts and my understanding is the location in question is on state grounds at a memorial or monument to the Confederacy next to a state building, Not on the capital building, or state building.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong about this.
    Now….I agree, the only Flags that should fly over our state capitals or any state business buildings or Federal business buildings is the American flag or current state flags.
    However, to say the southern battle flag should be banned from display or flying at parks where both sides fought or banned from memorials or monuments solely dedicated to the history and remembrance of the Confederacy is …..in my opinion, wrong…. I believe it should be allowed at these places.
    If banned from all these places, the next step for those opposed will be to tear down the memorials and monuments completely.
    I’ve read at least one instance of this already being tried on a monument placed in 1906 by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
    I guess a question I have is do you believe Confederate memorials should be distoried as well? Seems everyone has an interpretation of what this battle flag represents and all the interpretations of those in favor of taking down the flag, I would think they would be as easily and equally offended by the memorials and monuments….I welcome comments on this.
    I’ll ask one more question…..what if, the native Americans rise up tomorrow and cry foul over the American flag?
    They were pushed from their lands, lied to, starved, hunted down in the snow and murdered like dogs.
    I realize we are the United States of America and it is our flag…..but couldn’t Native Americans say they find the flag offensive for the same reasoning….wouldn’t they also have a case??
    Comments please.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, Dean. I agree that many, if not most, media outlets must be read or listened to with some discernment. On the other hand, I feel confident that the information I quoted from CNN and NPR are documented, historical facts.

      Regarding the location of the flag in South Carolina, you’re correct that it does not fly above the capital, but near it. However, I believe it’s on government property. I also agree with you that at parks or memorial solely dedicated to the history of the Confederacy or Civil War, the flag should fly as a representation of history. Nor do I believe monuments or memorials should be removed.

      I’ve seen a lot of concerns expressed that this is “just the first step” of an attempt to erase the history of the Confederacy. I hope not and don’t see it that way.

      As for the comparison to the American flag–I’ve seen many make the same comparison. No doubt the American flag has flown over many instances of human tragedy and atrocities, as have many countries’ flags. The primary difference I see is that the American flag is not still used to represent groups that continue to suggest that Native Americans are not equal to Whites and it certainly isn’t still used to terrorize Native Americans.

      Thank you again for your comments.

  8. Steve Hogan says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. When Michelle Obama made her now famous remark “First time I’ve been proud of my country ” she was talking about racism and the United States of today. She and many others, privately or publicly , consider the flag of the United States to be a symbol of genocide, white-privilege,imperialism, neo-colonialism, Zionism, and at the very least a dangerous micro aggression. Universities are taking steps to protect students who may be offended or frightened. Millions are offended by the Flag of the United States. So ———– if offensiveness is the issue it clearly applies to “Old Glory” Why now the Confederate controversy? Election 2016.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      I remember when Michelle Obama made that comment, and at the time, it made me consider why she said it. I understand that I may not always see the same side of America as some people, just as I am not aware of large groups of people believing what you noted about the Flag of the United States.

      I’ve heard about universities taking down the American flag to keep from offending students. As I said in a previous comment, sometimes I think we’re too easily offended. Imagine if we removed everything that offends everyone. What’s left?

      Though I don’t personally agree with taking down the flag that represents our country, it’s the right of the university, or business, or individual to take down the American flag, just as it’s the right of any individual to fly any flag they wish to fly, including the Confederate flag. It may offend me, but I can handle being offended.

  9. Ben says:

    All of those flags represented the values of confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who fameously said in his cornerstone speech:
    “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.”

    Just because most people don’t want to admit the foundation of the confederacy, and every flag they ever used is institutional racism doesn’t mean it’s not true.

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thank you, Ben. Alexander Stephens’ quote perfectly states the philosophy of the Confederacy, which yes, is a piece of our history we should never forget. But I don’t believe the flag should fly on government property that also represents the very people who the Confederacy once believed “not equal to the white man,” and more importantly that continues to represent groups that still believe that.

  10. Mustang.Koji says:

    You wrote of your feelings very well, Jan, on this topic being fueled by media outlets to no end. I do deeply believe they are sharpening the butcher knife that is insanely dividing our country. I also feel this continually dissecting of things has gone too far or is weighed too heavily on one side. If I step back and view what is going on, who cannot see this national divide extending to the red, white and blue? After all, our children’s history textbooks preach about racism and discrimination. Case in point: all the flag burnings and desecrations of our flag.

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