Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Confederate Flag

There is a bubbling controversy here in Richmond, Virginia concerning an organization called The Virginia Flaggers. They have purchased a plot of land just south of the city adjacent to interstate 95 and it is their stated intention to begin flying an enormous 10’ x 15’ Confederate flag atop a 50’ flagpole which will be fully lit by floodlights at night starting next week. This has reignited the tired but still explosive debate over “hate vs. heritage”. Is the Confederate flag an offensive symbol of slavery or does it represent the brave sacrifices made by thousands of young men who rallied to defend Virginia from invasion?

According to Susan Hathaway, spokesperson for the Flaggers, “The sole intention of this is to honor our ancestors.” The local chapter of the NAACP has a different view espoused by its executive director King Salim Khalfani, “If those soldiers had been successful, I’d still be in chains.”

So, what to think? The claim made by Mr. Khalfani that he would still be in chains had the Confederacy won the war is a dubious one since the economic underpinnings of slavery were already unraveling before the war even started, but his larger point is valid. For African Americans, nostalgia for the old south isn’t exactly a hot topic of conversation. The feelings that the flag brings to mind for them are quite different than the simple devotion to ancestors claimed by Mrs. Hathaway. More likely, for African Americans, the confederate flag is associated with jacked up pickup trucks, gun racks and beer swilling teenage boys out on a Friday night looking for trouble.

I write these words from my study at home. On the wall to my right hangs a print of the famous E.B.D. Julio painting, The Last Meeting depicting Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback talking just hours before Jackson would be mortally wounded in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Behind me hang portraits of the two generals and to my left is a picture of Jeb Stuarts plumed hat, riding gloves and pistol taken from him the day he died. In my library there are no less than eleven books about the history of the Civil War. It has always fascinated me and I have studied it as an amateur all of my life. The point is that I have great sympathy for the heritage point of view in this debate. But I must also say that my feelings about the flag and what it represents has gone through many changes over the years. I have come to the position that, like it or not, the flag carries with it a ton of baggage and is offensive to a sizable slice of our population. For this reason, I’m against this enormous display on such a highly travelled highway entering the old capital of the Confederacy. The symbolism is too heavy. I think of how I would feel if this was a giant Mexican flag erected by a Pro-Amnesty group and imagine it would be close to what African Americans feel towards the Stars and Bars. The vast majority of people who see it will not be thinking about the brave men who gave their lives defending their homeland from invasion, they will be thinking, “What the hell? Who put THAT up??”

The question of whether the Virginia Flaggers should be prohibited from flying it is another issue all together. As much as I would prefer that they found a less ostentatious way of honoring their ancestors, they have every right to fly this flag. It’s their land, their flag, and their decision. It’s a free country. But just as they have a right to fly it, those opposed have every right to protest against it. It’s called Democracy, and public conflict and debate is how we roll.

Bring it on.