The murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina have led to calls from across the political spectrum (including a remarkable speech by the son of Strom Thurmond) to remove the “stars and bars” – officially the Confederate Battle Flag – from official displays on government buildings in the South.
I do hope there is follow-through on the commitment and promises in the face of the building backlash, which will be abetted by the distraction of the next tragedy, primary politics in the 2016 election, or a Kardashian sighting. The outline of that backlash has already been seen on network news following the first calls for iconoclasm, that is removing the Battle Flag and all that it represents.
Typically, someone is seen objecting that the Battle Flag represents some brave ancestor who fought in the Confederate army during the Civil War and calls to remove the flag is an attack on their heritage.
I think any counter-argument need to start with a fundamental truth: those who fought on the Confederate side or supported its struggle were guilty of treason.
Harsh words, perhaps. But treason is a truth that needs to be brought out into the light of day. Article IIII, Section 3 of the United States Constitution describes treason against the United States as “shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
As defined in that Article, the leaders of the Confederacy and their soldiers were all guilty of treason. And yet, Confederate government leaders were not hanged and military leaders were not jailed for the rest of their lives. Reconstruction was brutal in many aspects, but not as brutal as it might have been if the intent was to totally destroy the South.
The reasons for the above are complex and will not be discussed here.
The point I want to make is that treason is the first truth of the Southern rebellion even if it has been lost in the depiction and understanding of the Civil War in our time.The second truth is that the Southern cause was about slavery and white supremacy. Any doubt about the latter can be found in the contemporary writings of Southern leaders both before and after the Civil War. The Atlantic magazine has captured many quotes in recent issue. You can read the article here.
It is clear Southern leaders clearly understood their cause was the continued existence, and expansion, of slavery and the claimed right of ownership of black people as property. And to carry on with their aims they were ready to, and did, commit treason.
The Confederate Battle Flag then is the overt symbol of treason and white supremacy – pure and simple.
So to address the point about someone having a Confederate ancestor. honor their history and service in an army if you must, but not the cause.
Any claim that a Confederate ancestor was actually fighting for “state rights” or because the Yankees were in their state is self-serving in light of history, At the time those may have been the beliefs or understanding of individual Confederate soldiers. Soldiers are always being lied to about why they are fighting and dying. It continues to this day.
But then, as now, political leaders understand the real reasons for the wars they start. And the rebellion (and treason) was about slavery.
The Battle Flag is part of American history and has a role in that history. But it has no place in official display on any government building – state or local – across the land.It belongs in museums.
Symbols have value – but only if the values they represent are worth cherishing.