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Monday, May 31, 2010

The Real Reason Behind the Rebel Flag (And Why Some People Adamently Support It)


Without slavery, there never would have been a rebel flag

John Gripentrog is an assistant professor of history at Mars Hill College.

The recent uproar at Sullivan South over the Confederate flag, the most popular symbol of the Civil War, reminds us of the importance of understanding our own past. The “flag issue” invariably raises blood pressures, rouses righteous rhetoric, and all too often misses the deeper historical significance. It’s time we get it right. Only by facing the past with integrity and courage will we as a nation progress toward a more perfect union. To this end, what’s needed is an honest appraisal of the core issue — one that gets beyond hackneyed justifications and goes to the heart of the matter.
The Confederate flag emerged out of civil war, so the crucial question remains: What was the principal cause of violence between the states? Was the war fought over states’ rights? Yes, but states’ rights for what? Over Fifth Amendment property rights? Sure, but property rights regarding what? Over regional economics? Of course, but what was the foundation of the South’s economy? No matter how one cuts it, the unequivocal answer to each question is slavery (or, more precisely, its expansion into the western territories). There is no war between North and South, and, thus, no rebel flag, without slavery — period.
A preferred explanation among pro-flag backers is that the flag is about “heritage” and not hate. But civil war did not come between North and South because of Northern disdain for Southern heritage. President Lincoln never denounced Southern architecture, folk music, religiosity, or diet. A better insight into the flag’s heritage can be found in the Confederate constitution, which guaranteed the right to own slaves no less than nine times. Or on various Confederate currencies, which often depicted laboring slaves. Moreover, the notion of “heritage” begs the question: whose heritage? Most of the Deep South states had a slave population that outnumbered white residents.
Not only must we recognize that the war was fundamentally premised on slavery, it is also important to reflect soberly on the nature of slavery. It is all too easy to let the word “slavery” pass between one’s lips without appreciating the consequences of that profound imbalance of power — the violence, the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape, and the routine selling of human beings as one would sell a mule. Imagine if you will a knock at your door this evening by someone who has come to take away forever your spouse, a child, siblings, or parents. That was the reality of the Civil War’s fundamental cause.
Still, it is also important to distinguish between why Southern men eagerly signed up to fight for the Confederacy, as opposed to the war’s fundamental cause of slavery. Despite a single great cause, myriad reasons drove men to the battlefield (75 percent of Southerners did not own slaves). All we know for certain is that hundreds of thousands of men fought and died. As such, it is entirely appropriate to memorialize the Confederate dead by flying the battle flag at Civil War cemeteries. Beyond that, however, publicly displaying the flag remains historically na├»ve and deeply offensive.
In light of this contentious issue, it may be instructive for Americans to return to Lincoln’s words in his 1863 Gettysburg Address. By beginning his memorial speech, “Four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln returned not to the U.S. Constitution (whose compromises allowed for slavery’s continuation), but rather to the Declaration of Independence, which boldly declared that all men are created equal. The president concluded by solemnly urging the nation to dedicate itself to “a new birth of freedom.” The point was unmistakable: a civil war brought on by slavery necessitated a new birth of freedom.
The Confederate flag — a singular creation of the Civil War — remains first and foremost a symbol of the ambitions to preserve slavery and prevent a new birth of freedom in America. For Americans who have ignored this undeniable historical truth, may they be guided in the future by the better angels of their nature.