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A Confederacy of koozies: Growing up accepting a 'historical' narrative

A Confederacy of koozies: Growing up accepting a 'historical' narrative
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In the Western Virginia of my childhood, the Confederate flag might as well have been a yellow Smiley face, a NASCAR logo, or any of the other ubiquitous tapestry of bumper stickers, t-shirts and beer koozies. Kids wore a Confederate flag by proxy of a “Dukes of Hazzard” t-shirt. The “General Lee” was considered the coolest car, but its name, the Confederate flag painted on its roof, and its “Dixie”-playing horn meant nothing to us beyond aesthetics.

Most homes in the South did not bear the Confederate flag, and its meaning stayed obscure because of the usual historical rendition — that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights and slavery wasn’t a primary issue. I look back now with some amusement at my father’s circumstance: a Lebanese immigrant who found himself surrounded by this symbol with even less concern for its origin. My mom, on the other hand, could trace her mostly Scottish roots back several American generations — bragging rights around our house. She had no affinity for the Confederate flag, but she endured the same common influences as everyone in the area, that the war was mostly about state rights. This inescapable narrative allowed families easier passage of pride in having relatives who fought for the Confederacy.  

Back then, no one mentioned the actual reasons stated at the 1861 convention for Virginia’s joining the Confederacy, including remarks by Henry Benning, commissioner from Georgia, that “the North hates slavery,” before warning that the North eventually might elevate a black person to the presidency. Alas, states’ rights meant the right to enslave black people. 

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My high school class of more than 500 students included Blacks, whites, rich and poor students.  Much later, in law school in New York, I learned that many kids there went to homogenous schools as a result of back-door segregation. I can certainly extol some virtues of my experience over theirs, but I also can recall a sea of Confederate flags throughout the school. Our diverse class was seemingly united in ignorance about the flag’s origin.  

Later, when I moved to Richmond, Va., I would drive or walk past the Stonewall Jackson Monument every day on my way to Virginia Commonwealth University, where minorities made up around 40 percent of the student body. A militarily revered general for the Confederacy, Jackson’s statue presented a gallant warrior atop a horse almost 40 feet high. It looked permanent.    

Nazi Germany has some import here. Had statues gone up of Hitler or his generals after World War II, had military bases been named for Nazis, or Swastika flags abounded in the name of heritage, it would not be hard to imagine an eventual high school in Germany where Jewish kids intermixed with others wearing these same symbols on t-shirts. Such a thought seems absurd to most of us because we’re on the outside looking in. But it’s also an absurd thought within Germany, where such softening of history wasn’t allowed.  

By contrast, in the halls of my high school, students wore jeans jackets with Confederate flag patches and the occasional t-shirt saying, “You wear your X, I’ll wear mine,” goading Malcom X culture with the X shape of the Confederate flag. The absurdity hardly registered. How could it?  Just three hours east, in Richmond, people stood under the literal shadow of those who fought to preserve slavery. The uninformed and the well-intentioned thus were permitted to wander into the same symbols that were assimilated by the Ku Klux Klan. Someone now can wear a Confederate flag that stood for those who tried to secede from the country, killed Americans and routinely desecrated the U.S. flag, while vilifying Colin Kaepernick as unpatriotic.    

It’s true that those who fought for the Confederacy cannot be defined by that one experience.  They were fathers, brothers, friends. Stonewall Jackson himself overcame an impoverished childhood, orphaned at a young age after family members died of illnesses. He is said to have treated his own slaves humanely — a reprehensible paradox now, but more laudable then.      

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But monuments to the Confederacy do not stand for such nuanced reasons. These are not monuments of men for whom some unscrupulous characteristics came to light. The reason they are monumentalized is unscrupulous: they were considered heroes who fought a treasonous war to ensure the enslavement of black people.  

Erecting their statues on Richmond's Monument Avenue was societal engineering. It obscured history and conflated pride and heritage. It produced Confederate flag beer koozies. It worked. Hopefully, taking them down will work, too.

Franklin Monsour is a partner at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP in New York.  He previously was a federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida in Miami. The views here expressed are those of the author.