With the Charleston church massacre a memory and the Confederate flag discussion verging on a media circus, there’s now a push to move on to supposedly more important issues, such as poverty and the criminal justice system.
But, as the activist Bree Newsome reminded us recently when she forcibly took down the flag in Columbia, South Carolina, removing the Confederate flag is not a mere distraction. It is, instead, something to be thought about deeply, a provocation that could lead to a fundamental change in cultural attitudes on many issues.
Defenders of displaying the Confederate flag point to history and tradition. But American history records that the defense of that flag has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and has made life miserable for many others. Its defenders understand the stakes; they have fought, and even killed, those who have tried to take it down.
On March 5, 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, the earliest version of the Confederate flag—with three bars and a circle of nine stars—first flew over the state house in Montgomery, Alabama, then the Confederate capital. Why was it raised that day? Because on the previous day, March 4, Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as president of the United States. Everyone knew that Lincoln loathed slavery. Although he had tried in his inaugural address to stave off war by saying that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed, the South saw him as a wicked abolitionist who would do away with slavery. The flag was meant as a slap in the face for him and all other antislavery Northerners. For the South, Lincoln’s attitude was irrational, unchristian, and in conflict with ethnic science. The Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens, who as the Confederate vice president helped choose the original Southern flag from over 120 proposed designs, declared that the Confederacy was founded on “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.”