Martin Dyckman: The time is now to take it down

confederate flag (Large)

Those who flaunt the Confederate flag insist that it symbolizes “heritage,” not hate.

Call it what they will, but that heritage is a heritage of hate.

The slave owners and their politicians fancied themselves good, decent, God-fearing people. How could they square that with the countless hideous brutalities they inflicted on their human chattels?

They salved their consciences by declaring blacks to be their inferiors, fit only for slavery, deserving of nothing better, possessed of no rights that whites were bound to respect.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, rationalized that blacks were “by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” Texas, in its declaration of causes for secession, called them an “inferior and dependent race” whose presence could be justified only by the “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery.” An unpublished manifesto at the Florida secession convention accused them of a “natural tendency every where shown … to idleness vagrancy and crime …”

The propaganda of the South seethed with such contempt. It persists.

There is scant distance between contempt and hatred. Southern whites descended into hatred when they lost the war they had started over slavery, and with it some $3 billion in human “property.” Their hatred accounted for the Jim Crow laws, dedicated to white supremacy despite the pretense of “separate but equal,” that took slavery’s place. The Ku Klux Klan institutionalized terror. From 1877 to 1950, there were nearly 4,000 lynchings in the South. Virtually all the victims were black, often savagely mutilated before they were hung or burned alive. Any excuse would do.

The 1934 slaughter of Claude Neal was one of the worst. A mob gathered to cheer the tortured man’s bloody corpse hanging from a tree at Marianna. People took his fingers and toes to keep in glass jars as souvenirs. News stories had advanced the event. The governor of Florida, knowing Neal would be murdered, did nothing. 

Through all this ghastly history the Confederate battle flag served as a symbol of the lost “cause” that had led to it all, and, inescapably, of the hatred that has long outlasted the cause and still haunts this nation.

The hatred doesn’t exist entirely on its own. It is nurtured and spread by organizations such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose racist website apparently informed and inflamed the prejudices that the young hater Dylann Roof took to a Charleston church along with the laser-sighted handgun he would use to murder nine people simply because they were black.

Such hate groups — the Southern Poverty Law Center numbers 784 active ones in the United States alone — spread their malignancies even more easily these days thanks to the Internet. Florida is afflicted with 50 of them, second only to California’s 57.

It should be of grave concern to the Republican Party that the leader of the Missouri-based Council, Earl Holt III, has in recent years given $74,000 to 24 of its candidates, including three — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum — who are running for president.

What is it about their party that excites Holt’s enthusiasm? Whatever it is, banishing the Confederate flag from state capitols and other public property is only a first, small step. It is, however, an urgent and indispensable step. 

It is true that there were soldiers who had fought and died bravely under that banner, whether as volunteers or conscripts, who sincerely believed that it was about defending their homes rather than about the slaves few of them ever owned.

Much the same was true of German soldiers who died under the swastika flag that Hitler himself had designed. In neither case could valor vindicate the cause.

Both flags became symbols of indelible ugliness — the bigotry that rationalized slavery and has long outlasted it; the bigotry that inspired the Nazi regime’s conquests and mass murders.

It is a crime to display, much less flaunt, the Nazi flag in modern Germany.

No one sensibly suggests such a ban on the Confederate flag, which our Constitution would not permit.

It is long past time, though, to relegate it to museums, as Jeb Bush did when he was governor. It is an extraordinarily powerful symbol that stands in the way of coming to terms with what it represents. No other relic of the Confederacy serves such a role.

As President Obama expressed it so movingly in his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, “For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred into many of our citizens.

“It’s true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge … the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression, and racial subjugation …

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers, it would simply be acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”

No one has a stronger claim to heritage than South Carolina State Sen. Paul Thurmond, whose father, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, was the Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948 and staged epic filibusters against civil rights legislation. His great-grandfather was a Confederate corporal who is said to have witnessed the surrender at Appomattox.

Here is what he said when he joined the call to take down the Confederate flag that is fixed by law to a pole outside the Capitol where the Rev. Mr. Pinckney was his Senate colleague and friend.

“It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work for a better future,” he said. “That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate and divisiveness.

“I am aware of my heritage,” he said of the Civil War and slavery. “I am not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and wrong, wrong, wrong …

‘”I am proud to take a stand and no longer be silent. We must take down the Confederate flag and we must take it down now. But if we stop there, we have cheated ourselves out of an opportunity to start a different conversation about healing in our state. I am ready.”

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Western North Carolina. 

Martin Dyckman



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