Civil Rights

The Confederate flag is ‘America’s swastika’

Confederate Flag, MoveOn, Charleston
Getty Images

Mitt Romney stated recently that the Confederate flag was “a symbol of racial hatred” and asked that it be removed from South Carolina’s capital to honor victims of Charleston’s deadly church shooting. President Obama agreed with Romney and believes the Confederate flag “belongs in a museum.” Even before Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans at a historically black church, Southern institutions had decided to part ways with this “symbol of racial hatred.” According to former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat, the University of Mississippi chose to “disassociate” itself from the Confederate flag in the late 1990s and has prospered ever since:

So we decided we had to disassociate ourselves from the flag. … Since that time, we are prospering at the university in ways that none of us could have imagined. … Over time, people began to see that the benefit of not having that flag tied to our university, or vice versa, was far more valuable than the enjoyment that anybody received from waving that flag.

The University of South Carolina’s football coach, Steve Spurrier, once stated: “I realize I’m not supposed to get in the political arena as a football coach, but if anybody were to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it.” In addition, the NCAA will not host March Madness tournaments in South Carolina, Mississippi or any state that flies the Confederate flag in its capitol.

{mosads}There’s an obvious reason why Ole Miss is “prospering” from its decision and South Carolina continues to lose NCAA tournament opportunities. Long before Roof appeared in a photo holding the Confederate flag, brandishing a weapon and espousing a manifesto, it was viewed by African-Americans and citizens throughout the nation as a symbol of racism. Although a part of Southern heritage, Pew Research found that only one in 10 Americans have a “positive reaction when they see the flag displayed” and over 40 percent of African-Americans have a negative reaction to the Confederate flag.

In reality, its symbolism is appreciated more by white Southerners than African-Americans, who are reminded of the South’s history of slavery and racism when the flag is waving atop a flagpole. While some Charleston residents had a Secession Ball in 2010, others were reminded of South Carolina’s declaration of secession. In 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States because of, as the declaration said, “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

To understand why NAACP President Cornell Brooks believes that “The flag has to come down,” it’s important to note that Southern heritage has a different meaning to African-Americans than it does to white citizens in the South. From 1619 to 1865, blacks were enslaved, their families bought and sold like cattle (children, husbands and wives were routinely torn from one another) and the Southern economy was based entirely on the slave labor of its black population. After Reconstruction, Jim Crow and a lynching epidemic so catastrophic — as detailed in Ida B. Wells’s The Red Record — Southern society ran on a strict code of racial segregation. Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were African-Americans even able to vote in the South and even today, the Ku Klux Klan burns crosses and actively recruits members.

Considering the African-American experience, it’s understandable why any reminder of slavery and segregation would evoke powerful emotions not only to victims, but also to perpetrators. When Roof told his victims that “you rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” it’s apparent that he longed for a different time period in Southern history. A New York Times article cites the killer’s motivation for the church massacre:

“I have no choice,” it reads. “I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

Therefore, the photo of Roof posted on a white supremacist website speaks volumes, primarily because the Confederate flag in one hand and gun in the other represent a frighteningly ominous image. Like the jacket he wore in another photo with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, Roof was illustrating his belief system through emblems worn by modern-day white supremacists.

Perhaps nobody said it better than Maynard Jackson, the first African-American mayor of Atlanta, when he likened the Confederate flag to the Nazi swastika. Quoted in a 1995 Los Angeles Times article, Jackson summarized the feelings of Americans (both white and black) throughout the country:

But after helping to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, former Mayor Maynard Jackson declared after leaving office last year that he would work to change the flag, which he calls “a constant, negative reminder of slavery and segregation … an American swastika” and an “embarrassment” to the city.

Jackson was right, and although some might feel these words are hyperbole, the Confederate flag is indeed America’s swastika. Like the Jewish community’s raw and painful emotions toward the Holocaust and any reminder of the 6 million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany, the African-American community sees centuries of slavery, lynching and racial prejudice when the Confederate flag waves atop a flagpole.

Furthermore, it’s true that flags don’t kill, but murderers adhering to flawed notions of the past can be motivated by these dark symbols. Dylann Roof sat for one hour in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church before murdering nine worshippers, and then opened fire, because “We have no skinheads, no real KKK.” The Confederate flag represents a time when whites could legally intimidate and persecute blacks. It’s America’s swastika, and like Mayor Jackson once said, it’s an embarrassment. If Ole Miss had the courage to ban the Confederate flag, others should do the right thing and jettison this symbol of white supremacy, slavery and injustice.

Goodman is an author and a journalist.

Tags Barack Obama Charleston Confederacy Confederate flag Dylann Roof Maynard Jackson Mississippi Mitt Romney Ole Miss Racism Robert Khayat Slavery South Carolina Steve Spurrier University of Mississippi University of South Carolina
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