I suppose we'll have the Confederate Battle Flag fight all over again... in Mississippi

As the New York Times reports this week, we obviously didn’t have enough other things to worry about between terrorists trying to burn down the world (at least the Christian parts of it) and our cities spilling over with racially charged protests and riots. No… that’s not enough to keep anyone busy, so we may has well have yet another fight over the Confederate flag. Having cast out the demons of South Carolina and turned the entire state into a bastion of racial equality and harmony, the fight moves even deeper into the deep south. Dane Waters, the head of Tipping Point strategies, is heading to Mississippi in an attempt to bind together a coaltion of community and government leaders to tear the stars and bars from the state flag once and for all.

This week, Mr. Waters, a self-described conservative who has been retained by a group of people he declined to name, will arrive in Mississippi to pick up a difficult task: forming an unlikely and perhaps unmanageable alliance of preachers, business executives, state boosters and civil rights advocates to remove forever the Confederate battle flag from the state flag.

He is working with the Flag for All Mississippians Coalition, which was started by Sharon Brown, an activist in Jackson, who is black. The campaign has already been organizing supporters and held a hundreds-strong rally at the State Capitol. But Mr. Waters spoke of other tools that will be brought to bear outside the public eye, such as pressure on political donors and lobbying in the Legislature.

We’ll see how that works out. The people of Mississippi held a referendum regarding redesigning the flag and in 2001 and it was rejected by a wide margin. Other incomplete movements have been ginned up several times since then and the state’s residents don’t seem to have changed their feelings overly much. That doesn’t stop the various “interested parties” from outside the state, though, and it’s not just Dane Waters. My friend and radio co-conspirator Doug Mataconis tends to look at the flag issue in a rather black and white way (if you’ll pardon the phrase) and has determined that anyone who supports this symbol of hatred and resistance to racial equality is simply on the wrong side of history and needs to get right with whatever program is on the horizon. (Outside the Beltway)

The reality, of course, is that the debate that occurred in South Carolina in the wake of Dylann Roof’s racially motivated murders in a church closely tied to both the struggle against slavery and the Civil Rights Movement is one that needs to occur throughout the south, and perhaps nowhere more than in Mississippi which was a focal point of both the worst aspect of the Confederacy and the resistance to the end of Jim Crow. Whatever those nostalgic for the history of the Civil War might tr to say, it is obvious that the Confederate Battle Flag long ago became a symbol of hatred and resistance to racial equality rather than some remembrance of heritage. In some sense, the debate over this issue was settled in the wake of the war, when Robert E. Lee himself, who became President of what is now Washington & Lee University in Virginia argued that the flag should not be displayed in public  and left instructions that no such flags were to be displayed at his funeral or his grave after he died. Indeed, it wasn’t until the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and then most especially the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s that the flag seems to have become a public symbol again.

After Brown v. Board of Education and similar decisions from the Supreme Court, and the efforts of the Eisenhower Administration and subsequent Presidents to enforce Federal laws protecting the rights of African-Americans, many states in the South began flying the flag and integrating it into their state symbols in what was obviously an attempt to foster resistance to Washington and an effort to intimidate the African-American residents of their respective states. As the years went by, many states began to abandon those symbols, but it was Charleston that really brought home the point that it was time to abandon the flag as anything other than a museum piece, which is the step that South Carolina has taken. Mississippi should take a cue from its fellow Southern state and enter the 21st Century already.

Doug, my old friend, you’re a great guy, but I’m afraid you have far too much blue Jersey blood running through your veins (read: “Yankee“) to ever really get this issue deep down in your bones. And I’m also sensing a bit of willful blindness to dates in the history books to boot.

It’s fine for detractors who assume by default that anyone with the offending flag on their pickup truck is a racist to fling about such claims, but they need to be supported in fact. First of all, there may have been a spread and resurgence of the flag (in various versions) during the 1920s and the 1950s, but it’s simply ignorant to claim that the flag “wasn’t a public symbol” from the end of the Civil War until then. Without much checking, (indeed, right in the New York Times article linked above) you will note that the stars and bars have been flying over Mississippi continuously since the 1890s as part of the state flag currently under discussion. That doesn’t mean it was hidden in closets or trotted out in a clandestine fashion for Klan meetings. It was over the state capitol and everywhere else the state flag flies. It was in plenty of other places as well.

But quibbling over dates in a history book doesn’t get anywhere near the heart of the matter I give credit to the Times reporter for actually going out and speaking to some of the residents who actually get it because they live it.

“My flag’s been flying for 33 years, and I’m not about to take it down,” said Nancy Jenkins, 58, a postal worker who is white and who flies the Mississippi flag and the United States flag at her house a block south of Louisville City Hall. “It doesn’t stand for hate. It means a lot of people fought and died.”

Indeed, Nancy, a lot of people fought and died to be sure. But it goes much deeper than that and spans the history of the nation. That’s something I learned from living in the South for a fair while and getting the know the people there. (Darned nice of them to tolerate a Damn Yankee from New York and allow him into their homes.) Back in July I attempted to express some of this as best I could in a column which generated the greatest number of letters (supportive ones, anyway) I’ve ever received from a single piece. The vast majority were from southerners, of course. It dealt with what I learned was the real meaning of the stars and bars.

None of that had anything to do with endorsing slavery. None of it had to do with a war that happened more than a century before aside from the wreckage left behind. It didn’t matter if you were black or white as long as you remembered that you were southern. And in that we find the greatest embarrassment of all in this debate. It seems that any other demographic group in the nation can be proud of their heritage… except for The South. If you are from below the Mason-Dixon you will seemingly live in perpetuity with the scars of the antebellum past. And if anyone wants to spit on you in the gutter after you’ve been beaten down in the contest of public debate, there will be nobody to defend you. It’s always okay to make fun of the southern man. And if you want to tear down his flag or even his flagpole, the nation – and most particularly the media – will throw you a ticker tape parade.

“The South” – at least as defined as a unique, richly flavored heritage in the American melting pot – nearly died at the end of the 19th century. But it hung on in the tenacious way that southerners have always held on. They held on even as they came (as Virgil Cane said) and tore up the tracks again. And as they held on and regrouped through the 20th century, they had a symbol to cling to. It might not have been the best symbol, and others would obviously see it as a sigil of war, but it was the symbol they had. And they hung on to it. It grew to mean something deeper and more profound about the cultural identity of just being from The South when everyone else wanted to pretend that The South had never existed.

That’s what it’s all about. And it’s what it’s been about for a very, very long time. And if there’s one more thing that we Yankees (along with everyone in the SJW) should learn, it’s that southerners hang on to tradition and pride like an alligator with a deer carcass. If you’re coming to try to take it away you’d best be ready for a fight. And be sure to bring a bag lunch and a flashlight. It’ll probably take all day and most of the night.

Oh, and before we go, Doug… Lynyrd Skynyrd called and asked me to leave you a message.

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