The murderous tragedy in Charleston last week was only a more spectacular example of racist hate crimes that happen on a depressingly regular basis in this country. Of course it shocked us, threw us into a turmoil of grief and sadness, but beyond that it appears to have dispelled in a flash just a bit more of our blindness, our trance-like acceptance of institutional injustice that is as scandalous as it is obvious. “Amazing Grace” had it right: I once was blind but now I see.
It’s about the Confederate flag, yes, but also about other equally crude, sick, schizoid symbols that are deeply embedded in our national fabric.
How is it that it took us so long to recognize that the Stars and Bars is a symbol of treason, of racism? One that has no place on public lands, whether they be local, state, or federal? That it is in the worst possible taste for businesses to sell merchandise emblazoned with that symbol? Of course the First Amendment is in play, and individuals have every right to display that flag if they wish—on their own property. They are absolutely free to set up an altar to Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest if they like, complete with flowers and incense, as long as it’s in a private venue.
But how is it we’ve publicly accepted this symbol of slavery and treason for so long? I am embarrassed to include myself among those who have been only mildly annoyed at seeing photos of Confederate statues and flags in public places, when in fact all of it should be long gone. Those who want to honor the people who fought for the South in the Civil War should do it in privately-funded museums. Enjoy.
But the rest of us have had it. All the bogus arguments about “heritage” and “culture” and “history” are pretty weak mint juleps at this point. You mean the heritage of an economy based on slave labor? A culture and history of violent, systematic human subjugation? Please.
It gets worse. You might have read that there are scores of public buildings, parks, and schools named for various prominent Confederate figures such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. These are, of course, more examples of attempts to indirectly legitimize the effort to continue slavery. Personally, I can’t really stomach the image of the doe-eyed, aristocratic Robert E. Lee as hero of anything. A very skilled general, his decision to side with the South is understandable only when you see the grandeur of the Custis-Lee mansion and realize what he stood to lose if slavery were abolished. But one certain effect of his decision to turn coat was to lengthen the war, causing hundreds of thousands more deaths than would have occurred otherwise.
Even if you happen to just love Bobby Lee, it is hard to see anyone waxing enthusiastic about Nathan Bedford Forrest—a Confederate general who was little more than a racist thug in uniform, and later a key figure in founding the Ku Klux Klan. His troops’ massacre of hundreds of black Union soldiers in April of 1864 has been poorly papered-over by sympathizers, but stands as one of the uglier moments in an ugly conflict. Needless to say, there are plenty of monuments and other memorials to this war criminal, including schools and school districts in various parts of the South. “Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest, Daddy?” “Well, let me tell you the whole glorious story, son…”
Then there is the subject of military bases. You know, centers that house armed forces of the United States of America? Let’s see, in Texas we have Fort Hood. Named for John Bell Hood, another Confederate general, who also lends his name to a county in Texas. And there’s Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, named for Braxton Bragg, another Confederate general. Does it make any kind of sense to memorialize figures who actively fought to dismember the United States and preserve slavery, and to do so by giving their names to U.S. military installations? We might as well name a church The United Congregation of Lucifer.
It has been pointed out that banning Confederate symbols from public spaces and re-naming institutions is superficial, and that the racism so deeply rooted in society will take much longer to eradicate. The best reply to that is: One step at a time and we’ll get there.