The political pressure to take down the Confederate battle flag flying at South Carolina’s state capitol has grown stronger in the wake of the execution-style murders of nine black people by white racist Dylann Roof during a Bible study session at the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week. For many Americans, the flag is a symbol of racial hatred. Many Southerners, however, claim that it’s just a symbol of Southern pride and heritage. But that’s not true.
First of all, the flag is a reminder that the Southern states violated the Constitution and rebelled from the U.S. and formed their Confederacy in 1861 in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election. Their primary concern was that Lincoln’s election threatened the Southern economic institution of slavery. Many Southerners to this day claim that the real issue was states’ rights, but the right that caused the problem was their right to maintain the legality of slavery.
Many Southerners also like to claim that most Confederate soldiers didn’t fight to preserve slavery, but were just defending their homelands from invaders from the North. But the North didn’t start the war. The Civil War began when Confederate forces, with the approval of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, began to bombard, without provocation, the U.S. forces stationed in Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor on April 12, 1861. Furthermore, the Confederate army invaded non-Confederate states several times during the war, including the states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. They also invaded the territory of New Mexico and declared a new territory named Arizona in the southern portion of that territory. Despite these facts, many Confederate sympathizers disingenuously call the conflict The War of Northern Aggression.
The conduct of the Confederates during the war shows otherwise too. The U.S. government began recruiting black soldiers into the Union Army after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Jefferson Davis responded with an order that any black Union soldiers that were captured by Confederate troops were to be executed or returned to slavery. Before the Battle of Olustee in Florida in February of 1864, for example, Confederate soldiers were told not to take “any negro prisoners.” Confederate troops led by Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest captured Fort Pillow in Tennessee in April of 1864. The fort’s Union garrison numbered about 600 soldiers – about evenly split between black and white. But only about 20% of the black soldiers were taken prisoner while about 60% of the white soldiers survived. The battle came to be called the Fort Pillow Massacre because Confederate soldiers were accused of killing black soldiers who were trying to surrender. Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war ended.
Flying the Confederate Flag Isn’t A Tribute to the South’s Heritage
Furthermore, the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina state capitol wasn’t put there as tribute to the South’s heritage. It was raised in 1961 supposedly to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, but in actuality as a protest against court-ordered school integration in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision wherein it found separate public schools for black and white students were discriminatory and unconstitutional.
It’s legal to display and fly the Confederate flag because of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech in the U.S. Constitution. But that doesn’t mean that it should be officially displayed by local governments. Last week, for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that it was legal for Texas to prohibit the issuance of vanity license plates that displayed the Confederate flag. But this practice is still allowed in South Carolina and eight other Southern states. And the Confederate flag is still a part of Mississippi’s state flag, even though it’s the state with the highest percentage of African-American citizens in the U.S.
In response to the growing criticism about flying Confederate flags on public property, local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) have begun promoting March 4 as Confederate Flag Day. That’s the day in 1861 when the first Confederate flag was hoisted over the initial Confederate capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. SCV members are encouraged to salute the flag by proclaiming, “I salute the Confederate flag with affection, reverence and undying devotion to the Cause for which it stands.”
Confederate flags, of course, should still be flown at military cemeteries, Civil War battlefield sites, and museums. But it’s time for local government’s to quit allowing the display of Confederate flags on other public property. Why would any nation sanction the public display of a flag used by a rebellion that killed and wounded over 640,000 loyal soldiers?
On July 10, 2015, a crowd of thousands cheered when the Confederate flag flying on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds was permanently taken down after the state’s legislature voted to remove it.
On September 26, 2017, somebody left Confederate flags with cotton balls attached on billboards at American University, in Washington, D.C., after the school introduced a new Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center.
On April 17, 2018, white high school students in Auburn, Michigan, parked their trucks displaying Confederate flags across the street from a local high school.
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