AWAY DOWN SOUTH in Dixie, the Confederate flag is in the thick of battle once again.
Last week, South Carolina's Governor David Beasley plunged his state into controversy with a televised call to lower the rebel flag from above the statehouse and move it to a nearby Confederate memorial.
Four minutes after making his proposal, Beasley heard himself compared by state Senator Glenn McConnell — also on statewide television — to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who sought to appease Adolf Hitler. Attorney General Charlie Condon called Beasley's speech "a victory for the extremist groups." He declared that those who have "criticized the Confederate flag should be ashamed of themselves."
There would have been no war had the South not seceded, and the South seceded to protect chattel slavery.
The state where the Civil War began is the only one that still flies the Confederate flag from its seat of government. The South Carolina Legislature ordered the banner flown over the Capitol dome in March 1962, a symbol of defiance as the civil rights movement was reaching flood tide. (Officially, the flag was raised to commemorate the Civil War's centennial.) It has waved over the statehouse ever since, a revered emblem of Southern "heritage" to some, a detested reminder of oppression and bigotry to others.
South Carolina has changed since 1962. For one thing, Beasley, McConnell, and Condon are all Republicans, along with most of the state's congressional delegation and about half of the legislators in Columbia. Not too long ago, Republican officeholders were among the state's rarest fauna. The grand old man of South Carolina politics, US Senator (and former Governor) Strom Thurmond, was a Democrat until 1964, and when he ran for president on a segregationist platform in 1948, the Confederate flag was his standard. But Thurmond was with Beasley last week, seconding the governor's motion to remove the flag from the Capitol.
Yet some South Carolinians, their heartstrings tangled around the 1860s, still revere the Confederacy and all its trappings. McConnell, the state senator, howls that moving the Confederate flag "will amount to cultural genocide." Condon, the attorney general, warns that if the flag is moved, "before long, our history will be rewritten. The children of South Carolina will be taught, in the name of political correctness, to be ashamed of their state's history."
As if there were nothing in their state's history to be ashamed of.
The Confederacy has been extinct for 131 years. Its brief life was the cause of unspeakable sorrow, pain, and death. To insist that its battle flag deserves a place of pride above the statehouse is worse than mossbacked, it is reactionary. It is morally tone-deaf. And it is, to anyone dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, appalling.
The men and boys who followed the Confederate colors into battle may have been honorable and decent, but there was neither honor nor decency in the cause for which they fought. The Civil War was about many things, but it was first and foremost about slavery. South Carolina and the Confederacy went to war to perpetuate the freedom of white Americans to buy and sell black Americans. To be sure, most Confederate soldiers weren't slave owners, and many believed they were fighting in self-defense. But there would have been no war had the South not seceded, and the South seceded to protect chattel slavery.
Conservatives incline to tradition, and this conservative adheres to the credo that that which it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. But the tradition of flying the Confderate flag over Columbia's skyline is a horrid one. To the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the flag may recollect the bravery of Stonewall Jackson and the cannons at Fort Sumter. To tens of millions of others, it evokes the agony of the Middle Passage and the long nightmare of Jim Crow.
It is not by chance that white supremacist hate groups have adopted the Confederate flag. It is flown at Ku Klux Klan rallies. It is the emblem of punks on the racist fringe. It has been taken up by neo-Nazis in Germany, where the swastika is outlawed. Does that mean that anyone who admires the rebel flag is tainted with bigotry and hate? Of course not. But the bigots and the haters embrace that flag for a reason: It was first raised in defense of the proposition that some men are no better than property.
South Carolina's governor, whose great-great-great grandfather Reuben Beasley fought for the South, has waded into an issue he could have avoided and made a lot of enemies he could have done without. He has also done the right thing. "Any banner we choose to fly over the Capitol," he said, "should be one that everyone can claim as their own." That is manifestly not true of the Confederate flag.
Americans of every color have reason to revile that banner. Three hundred sixty thousand Union soldiers, most of them white, lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands more were wounded, crippled, and shellshocked, in a war started by armies flying that flag. It is an ongoing affront to the Union dead, as it is to the memory of 10 million enslaved and murdered African innocents, when the flag of the Confederacy whips in the breeze.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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