The confederate flag is one of the most divisive symbols in the country. Some claim that it represents their cultural heritage and proud independent spirit, while for others it serves as a reminder of the country’s history of racism, segregation, and bigotry. While its symbolism today is a matter of debate, historically, it has stood for one thing far above all others: hatred. While many will claim otherwise, the reason the south seceded was slavery. Any other issues were of little importance, as just a cursory read of the causes of secession for most southern states will reveal. In official secession declarations, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia all list slavery as the main reason for leaving the union. In fact, all five states mention slavery within the first four sentences of their respective declarations. If that isn’t proof enough of the driving force behind the history of the flag, consider the 1861 speech by then Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens in which he states, “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon 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.”
Even with all the connotations the confederate flag carries, the flying of the flag over a state capitol would at first appear to be a matter of free speech. The government of South Carolina has the right to express their views and opinions. Cut and dry, right?
The real issue, though, as Judge Andrew Napolitano, Senior Judicial Analyst for Fox News, stated in a recent interview on The Daily Show, is much more complex. As he notes, “To say that the government has the freedom of speech is very dangerous, because the government has limitless resources and it will drown out speech it hates and fears if it can do so.”
The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech to all individuals. However, the government itself is not one of those individuals. The Bill of Rights was put into place to protect people from the government. It was never meant to extend those rights to the government itself. People have the right to express any opinion they want, even those fueled by hatred and prejudice. That is a fundamental right upheld by the constitution. But when the government itself expresses those opinions, it becomes something far more dangerous: institutionalized oppression. No person in this country should be governed by an institution proudly flying a symbol of the very movement that seeked to strip them of their basic human rights.
If this were simply a matter of preserving South Carolina’s history, the debate may have taken a different tone. The truth is, the flag has only flown over the statehouse since 1961. While the official reason for the raising of the flag was to commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the Civil War, it’s no coincidence that the state chose to hoist the symbol of oppression while the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. The particular flag they chose to fly also gives insight into the motives behind the flag: The Confederate States of America had at least four flags over their short-lived sovereignty. So why was the “southern cross” the one that South Carolina chose to fly? One of the first uses of the flag after the Civil War was Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run for president. Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat, a party based in the south whose official platform included the phrase “We stand for segregation of the races.”
Let’s stop pretending that the flag stands for anything other than racism. Let’s at least try to move past this 150-year grudge. The flag has to come down. Even the “great” Confederate General Robert E. Lee knew that once the war was lost, it was better to move forward than to look back. In a letter written after the end of the war, he stated “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war.” Let’s do the unthinkable and for once, actually follow Lee’s advice.
(Title image via).