Some neighbors in our predominantly white western rural Massachusetts town of Williamsburg have hoisted the confederate battle flag up their flag pole and displayed it on the wall of their business. Why would some Yankee from rural western Massachusetts choose to fly this symbol of divisiveness and hatred? And why now, after it has been further tarnished by the egregious hate crimes committed in South Carolina and the resurgence of church burnings in the southern United States?
For many years I have seen the confederate battle flag and I always wrongly thought that this was the flag of the southern confederacy. In my understanding, the confederate Stars & Bars represented a dissident position, a finger to the establishment, a rebellious rebel’s cause. I always thought it was really cool to fly or display this ‘rebel’ flag, that it was some kind of anachronistic memorabilia that some people cherished as a statement of dissent or a symbol of anarchy.
Now that the confederate Stars & Bars flag has been further bloodied by its association with the slaying of nine innocent African Americans, shot while attending bible study in their place of worship, their sanctuary, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I am suddenly confronted with the truth.
A (apparent) selfie of Dylann Roof, alleged murderer of the nine African-Americans at the Charelstown S.C. church shooting of 17 June 2015.
To begin with, this is the confederate battle flag: it was never the official flag of the South.
The confederate battle flag was the flag flown by several confederate Army units, including General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After the war it mostly faded from view, only popping up here and there, until it made a prominent resurgence during the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Extreme white supremacist groups increasingly adopted the confederate battle flag, and this was not because of “southern pride” or “southern heritage”, two of the contemporary excuses for waving or flouting the confederate battle flag, but because the Civil War was fought by many to preserve the national institutions of slavery and white supremacy.
The telling of U.S. history has always been managed by those with the most to hide, and so I have only just learned that Abraham Lincoln was never opposed to slavery, it was merely a political issue that he used to political advantage. Imagine that: a 55 year old citizen of the United States (me) who has always erroneously and naively believed that Abraham Lincoln was committed to the equality of peoples and opposed to slavery.
The Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC: what is today Potomac Park was once an apocalyptic hellhole: malarial swamps were dredged and filled to create the ‘tidal basin’ which rings the monuments, and the Lincoln and jefferson Memorials were erected on the sites of the holding pens and auction blocks of slavery.
Said Abraham Lincoln at one now infamous speech in Charleston Illinois on September 18, 1858:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
Why, the man was a white supremacist! Indeed, aren’t we [white people] all? I hear people’s mutterings — “no, I am no white supremacist… I am not an extremist… ”
For most African Americans the confederate battle flag has always been a symbol of hatred and oppression of the worst kind — the trans-Atlantic slave trade, acquisition and sale of people of color as possession, white-on-black rape and sexual slavery, destruction of families, forced labor, chain gangs and penal servitude, beatings, tortures, executions and lynchings of black and brown people — but it was further enshrined as such by its resurgence during the Civil Rights movement, with the FBI’s domestic terror program (COINTELPRO), with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and with the national struggle for desegregation, and all of these things happening at a time when people of color all over the world were fighting for independence from colonialism / imperialism.
Neither have the people of underdeveloped nations become free of the shackles of imperialism, nor have people of color in the USA (or Canada) become free from the terrorism, the ignorance and arrogance, of white supremacy and all its related forms, based in whiteness and the epistemologies of ignorance. This is why genocide proliferates around the world — in the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Indonesia, Columbia — whiteness is one of the roots of global violence.
After the Civil War, the hatred between Northern and Southern whites did not immediately subside, and some vestiges of that hatred exist today. But no matter their lasting hostility to each other, the troops of both armies united in their common pursuit of one thing: Manifest Destiny. The Union troops led the charge and led the slaughter of native Americans in the conquest of the West, and confederate troops purchased their places back in the United States army by jumping on the murderous bandwagon. Together the sons and daughters of the North and the South have sallied forth in the killing of people of color all over the world and the spread of imperialism since then.
The confederate battle flag was adopted by the extremist white supremacist Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing hate groups. It’s adoption by the alleged murderer Dylann Roof has spawned its further association with domestic terrorism against people of color in the USA.
The confederate battle flag flying at our neighbors home, above the Gadsen “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and the flag of Columbia below it. In the distance is our ancestral farmhouse, built circa 1810.
And so I ask: Why have our neighbors in our predominantly white western Massachusetts town of Williamsburg hoisted the confederate battle flag up their flag pole and displayed it on the wall of their business? Why would some Yankee from rural western Massachusetts choose to fly this symbol of divisiveness and hatred? And why now, after it has been further tarnished by the egregious hate crimes committed in South Carolina and the resurgence of church burnings in the southern United States?
Their answer? It is a decoration.
Why should this flag reign over state capitals when its not an official flag but actually is a popular rebel or dixie flag, indicating a commitment to the subjugation and subordination of blacks and a taste for state’s rights to uphold these practices?” Dr. Enoch Page is an anthropologist specializing in advanced studies in colonial and post-colonial racism.. “What does it mean when this flag is raised even outside of the South, such as it has recently been in Massachusetts, when it is used to symbolize a position taken up today, say for gun rights, or for anti-diversity laws, and not a historical past of the confederacy?
Some people would argue that the flying of said flag is done in ignorance, not hate. Here is one such communication I received:
“How do you know that is hate speech? All he probably is doing is giving you the finger. I used to wear a bandanna in college. It was of the confederate flag. I saw it as a sign of rebellion. In retrospect, it was a sign of ignorance and insecurity. But hate… no.”
Such an argument might apply to some, but the media climate is full of stories equating the confederate battle flag with hate, with slavery, and with oppression and injustice against African Americans, and with the preservation and codification of white privilege. To my neighbors, who by now have some clear picture of what these flags represent to so many people, there is a choice to pull the flag down, or raise it higher. They cannot argue ignorance, and no one can plead ignorance for them. To claim that their flags are flying as “decoration” is a mockery of the intelligence of the people of our town, state and nation.
Is my request to remove these flags from our community an issue of my intolerance of these people’s free speech? Or, perhaps, more precisely, an assault on their free speech? Said differently, is taking no action of any kind in the face of the appearance of these flags a viable option? Is it a tolerant position? I mean, freedom of speech is not the freedom to silence any speech you don’t like, but the freedom of others to express speech you don’t like. Should we shrug our shoulders, proclaim our disgust, dismiss them outright, applaud their contrarian or offensive or individualist expression or childish behavior — which, in this case, many see as hateful — or what?
Says Cynthia McKinney, former democrat of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia:
The flag symbolizes a fact of history that most White Southerners choose to deny: enslavement of Africans brought to this country and their systematic dehumanization –sentiments and aspects of which continue to this day. My family watched just two years ago now, I think it was, when we were in South Carolina at one of those rural country stores that sells the stuff, and I talked up a conversation with the store clerk. He railed that the South was misunderstood and that the symbols were not about slavery. Indeed they aren’t. They are the expression of the larger problem of White Supremacy. He felt that he could “level” with me because of what I had in my hand.
I buy Southern memorabilia which can still be seen dotting rural landscapes from Mammy dolls to Black Sambo Lawn Jockeys. If you’re going to chuck the flag, why not the rest of the symbols of White supremacy, also? Those span the South AND the North and regulate U.S. foreign relations.
I think, psychologically, raising the issue today gives sanctimonious hypocrites the opportunity to bash the South and reaffirm (only in their own minds) their own separation from the crass, unrefined hatred that that era in the United States represents and at the same time, do nothing about their own contribution to the manifestations and vestiges of those old sentiments that exist today.
African Americans — and now plenty of non-White immigrants — have a long history of experience with oppression and violence at the hands of the white man and white woman. Most white westerners simply cannot comprehend the depth of the terror that white “civilization” has subjected them to. For example, the nature, scale and depth of racial terror lynchings as an entrenched social institution has never been brought to light — the subject is taboo, and it is repressed in the public memory.
What does the confederate battle flag symbolize to African Americans? Dr. Enoch Page spells out his reality in no uncertain terms:
To me, the confederate flag is still flown as an insult to blacks and as evidence of their continuing subjugation. Flying it is intended to remind people that the South lost the war but did not lose the battle, so flying it intends to exalt white power. It represents to me the old south: the white citizens councils, the klan, the lynchings and all of the white resistance to integration and desegregation and affirmative action. It represents an ongoing stance rather than just a battle flag history because it was not just the flag of a battle, it is the flag for the battle fought to keep us enslaved and in servitude to or subordinate to whites. Giving it official prominence in any public buildings amplifies the insult and grants it strong legitimacy of the fact that we continue to be insulted while we also continue to be killed by whites or maybe just noosed by them, to remind us of their former power to kill us at will, not necessarily, then, with a badge. Oh, yes, there surely are a few whites who fly the flag who do not have a racist bone in their bodies, but maybe they simply don’t realize how the flag has been used to justify unjust executions and assassinations in addition to lynchings.
In their groundbreaking 2015 study, the Equal Justice Initiative, a private non-profit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, has now documented 3959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between 1877 and 1950 — at least 700 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.
MAP OF 73 YEARS OF LYNCHINGS IN 12 SOUTHERN STATES
For me the answer is fairly clear: at this moment in space and time it is incumbent upon me to express my views, to speak my displeasure, to name the offense, and make heard my voice in solidarity with people of color who continue to live in a United States that is rife with domestic terrorism, oppression and white supremacy — where people of color are overwhelmingly targeted. It is not the “extremist” Klansmen that I am addressing herein (and they still exist, too), but the ordinary white citizen who perceives the problem of white supremacy and racial injustice to lie outside of his or her self, in other people, especially in the extremist ranks. I went through this process of self-examination and reformation, and every day I work to further unseat the white supremacy that I have been indoctrinated with.
Other people have this choice too, and that is the nature of consciousness (or the lack of it).
This is the reason to confront the appearance of these flags at this place and time in our history. It offers a vehicle to explore and expose the seething institutional and systemic racism that seems every day to be worse and worse within and without the borders of the United States, and the psyches of the western civilized man and woman, a racism that is denied, dismissed and defended.
Although we hope our neighbors will join in the solidarity of the true defense of freedoms for all people, and while I am pleading with them to remove these hostile hateful symbols from our community, I am not asking for and I will not sanction legislation that confronts such hate speech: that is the path of authoritarianism. My neighbors are free to express their opinion, particularly opinion that they know many people don’t agree with. But, having now heard what I am so many others have to say about this flag, such expression only speaks badly of people: it is an example of the pursuit and celebration of ignorance and a sanctioning of the violence of that this flag represents.
Of course, when I posted a peace sign on my families property after September 11, 2001, it was my freedom of speech that was supposed to be enshrined in the U.S. constitution. Our farm was attacked more than 40 times between September 13, 2001 and December 31, 2001. And the hatefulness did not stop then, or there.
Surely, the confederate battle flag is not only about hate, it is also about white privilege, and white privilege is maintained in the United States, Europe, and Canada by any means necessary, including genocide.
I question whether it is about hate.” Dr. Enoch Page notes that plenty of white people do not hate people of color, they may be caring and kind, but they will go to extremes to maintain their white privilege. “You don’t have to hate to want to see competitors for food, water and shelter suppressed or removed when times are tight.
Members of my family fought and died in the Civil War. They fought for the Stars & Stripes (and they unknowingly fought for the profits of northern elites), and they fought against the confederate flag and plantation slavery. Seems that the fight against the confederate Stars & Bars is part of my heritage.
The confederate flag is MY heritage, too,” says Cynthia McKinney. “It is MY reminder that the past still lives and that past is our future unless we all contribute in some way to the needed transformation in our own values and in the values of this country. Just tucking the Stars and Bars of the confederacy away in a closet does nothing to address the essential values that it stood for. In that case, what do the Stars and Stripes stand for? The U.S. policies of today are just as heinous in their treatment of people here and abroad. Therefore, I would say, stop worrying about flags and start working on our souls. ~