Published June 20, 2001
Am I, a white Southerner, offended by public displays of the Confederate battle flag?
The answer, not surprisingly, is no. My ancestors – dirt-poor Georgia farmers who did not own slaves – threw themselves against an enemy that outnumbered them three to one and outgunned them a thousand to one, and fought until they were too spent to draw back the hammer of a rifle.
They fought to preserve their homes, families and the sanctity of states' rights, and did so under a slashed, red banner designed to reduce confusion in the heat and smoke of battle. It was, and still is, a symbol of courage, fidelity and sacrifice on a grand scale.
Not everyone, of course, sees it that way. Black Americans in particular claim to be offended by the flag's public display because, for them, it represents the institution of slavery. Yet in any discussion about this particular symbol, we must remember a couple of historical notes:
The Confederacy supported slavery, but so did the United States. In fact, it was the U.S. flag that flew the longest over slavery, and it was the U.S. Constitution that condoned and protected it as an institution. It was the United States that allowed slavery to flourish so that Northern businessmen could get rich.
Further, Abraham Lincoln – the Great Emancipator himself – wasn't terribly worked up over the welfare of slaves and said so a number of times. His concern was that he shouldn't preside over a divided country, and went to war to keep the South in the fold, not to eradicate slavery.
So, if we're going to start censoring symbols, there's a lot of candy-striped flags to remove from statehouses, post offices, American Legion halls, cemeteries, school houses, and office buildings.
My point is that no cultural group celebrates its lowest common denominator. Blacks in this country don't hold African heritage festivals to honor the fact that their own people gleefully sold them into slavery, or to support the genocide, sexual mutilation of women and absence of human rights that characterize Africa to this day. No, they celebrate tribal family values that helped see them through the terrible days of enslavement on a foreign shore.
Those of Japanese descent in America don't celebrate the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanking or the murder of tens of thousands of innocent Allied prisoners during World War II. Rather, they point to centuries of beauty and art, and hold them up as ideals of their culture.
Likewise, Oktoberfests don't exist to celebrate the slaughter of millions of Jews and an insane attempt at world domination. Instead, Germans rightly point to the influence their culture has had in music, architecture and philosophy.
And American Southerners who honor their Confederate heritage do not celebrate the institution of slavery. We pay homage to superhuman courage and heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. We list dedication, sacrifice and a willingness to die for home and hearth as the height of what is good in the human spirit.
The day we say, "You may no longer revere your cultural heritage because of your culture's sins or the misuse of its symbols," is the day we must eliminate every culture known to man.
But when you strip the issue to its core, the problem isn't the Confederate battle flag at all. The problem is that its most vitriolic opponents – specifically the NAACP, which attacks Confederate heritage at every opportunity – aren't doing anything to address real problems among blacks.
By attacking Confederate occasions and symbols, the NAACP succeeds in drawing attention to things most people normally wouldn't notice – which, I submit, is precisely what the group wants. Its aim is to deflect attention from the real dilemmas facing blacks and from the fact that the NAACP is doing nothing to solve them.
For example, 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, which studies show puts them at a much greater risk of living in poverty. Black 17-year-olds read at the same level as white 13-year-olds. On average, black students score 200 points below whites on the SAT.
Further, 52 percent of prison inmates are black and another third are on probation or parole. Fifty-two percent of blacks say they are afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhoods.
Where's the NAACP's outrage over these deplorable social conditions? Where are the marches and demonstrations and editorials and community programs designed to draw attention to and solve these problems? Does the NAACP really think that the elimination of Confederate events and symbols will suddenly make life a bed of buttercups for blacks in this country?
I've got a news flash for them. If all Confederate proclamations, commemorative events and emblems disappeared overnight, the material interests of blacks wouldn't improve one iota. Nor would racial stereotypes, bigotry and hatred miraculously vanish.
The enemy here isn't a historical symbol or the long-dead soldiers who fought under it, but rather the NAACP's unwillingness to come to grips with real dilemmas that need real solutions. The flag is simply a convenient scapegoat.
Charles Culbertson is a Civil War historian and a weekly political columnist for The News Virginian, a daily newspaper in Waynesboro, Va.
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