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It’s Not My Flag

Posted July 8th, 2015 at 3:00 pm (UTC-5)
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By Kevin Enochs

Let me first tell you why I can talk about Southerners and the Confederate flag. I was born in Mississippi and have lived in Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Virginia. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents spent their lives in the Deep South. I was once banished from my grandmother’s house for playing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on my harmonica. I was told that I would not be re-admitted until I had learned to play ‘Dixie,’ which is much harder. My family fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

You may wonder why some Americans are insisting it is okay to fly a flag that was raised in treason against the duly elected President of the United States and has come to symbolize slavery. I say “Americans” because according to a new CNN/ORC poll, 57 percent of us say the flag is more of a symbol of Southern pride than a symbol of treason or racism. I have also seen a fair amount of Confederate flags flying on the front lawns of homes in states that were not part of the Confederacy.

What this tells me is that on the surface, the majority of Americans view the Confederate flag as a free speech issue, not a social issue. Americans have a deep and powerful internalization of the idea that we must protect other people’s right to be offensive, because of the First Amendment. A majority of Americans seem to be saying “Well it WAS the symbol of the Confederacy, but that was a long time ago, and things are different now.”

But as a Southerner, from a family of Southerners, I must disabuse the optimistic well-meaning notion that things are different now. The glorification of the Stars and Bars is nothing more than the fruit of decades of revisionist history. Desperate to bring honor to a dishonorable proposition, there has been much work done to turn the American Civil War from what it was into a fight for self-governance akin to the one our founders proposed in 1776.

Evidently, it’s been successful, but this is a dangerous and willfully ignorant stance to take. The war was fought over slavery. Yes, states’ rights and Federalism issues were involved, but the war was fought because the Southern States simply could not maintain a plantation based agrarian economy without slavery. In today’s terms, the Southern 1 percent enjoyed tax breaks in the form of free labor and human bondage. They simply did not want to give that up. To turn that conflict into some kind of honorable affair akin to the Gadsden flag’s famous ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ motto whitewashes the whole affair.

This half-century long effort to turn the Confederate flag into a symbol of states’ rights and honorable conflict against an oppressive government is unforgivable. The Confederate flag was put away after the Civil War – rightfully so. For almost 80 years it stayed that way. When did it reappear in American consciousness? In the 1940s, as a form of protest against President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the military and make lynching illegal.

So this flag, the symbol of a group of states willing to go to war over their economic way of life, an integral part of which included slavery, was resurrected to again to represent the fight against the rights of fellow Americans. The Confederate flag is a manufactured symbol of Southern pride. All of the things in the South that I am proud of (and I am VERY proud of many things – gumbo, saying ma’am and sir, good manners, socializing on front porches, the gift of storytelling, humidity, swamps, the Drive by Truckers, my family, New Orleans) have nothing to do with the Stars and Bars. Those who believe that baloney have been hoodwinked.  

Any Southerner worth their salt knows this. It was, and is, physically painful for me to turn my back on the sins of my Fathers. It feels like a betrayal. But every decent Southerner knows this sadness and has struggled with this inheritance. We all must look upon the fields of Gettysburg with a mixture of resignation, but also with gratitude that General Meade proved the better military commander, even though our ancestors died in the proving. That moment in time marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. And it meant the United States as we know it today would come to be.

We are today One Nation, not a loose confederation of nation-states constantly squabbling (just think what the Eurozone would be like if a swaggering behemoth such as Texas was part of it.) And every Southerner should thank their lucky stars Abraham Lincoln was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

We might also want to recall Lincoln’s plea in his first inaugural address, which he took just after Jefferson Davis took the helm of the Confederacy:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

(Kevin Enochs is National Editor for VOA’s News Center)

An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as the commander of Union forces at Gettysburg instead of Gen. George G. Meade.


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