Flag a personal, not government, choice

January 23, 1997

The flags of the Confederacy had a rough time of it right out of the chute.

The first attempt bore too strong a resemblance to the Stars and Stripes, and in battle the two armies had trouble telling one side from the other. Another version was primarily white, and when it hung limp it tended to look like a flag of surrender.

The Confederate flag we're familiar with today is actually a replica of the South's Navy Jack, the rectangular version of the battle flag with the crisscrossed stars.

That this old "Southern Cross" can generate so much heat these many long, dead years after the Civil War's final battle is remarkable. But these days the fight is between historians, between sociologists, between civil rights activists and - why not - the makers of license plates.


In South Carolina the debate is whether the flag deserves to fly above the state capitol building. The list of people who believe it's time to retire the old banner may surprise you. Republican Gov. David Beasley, who comes from the conservative, Christian wing of the GOP, says the flag's day above the capitol has passed, as does that well-known arch-liberal Sen. Strom Thurmond.

The issue has generated thousands of letters - letters of applause from people who see the flag as a symbol of slavery and hate and letters of disdain from people who see it as a flag of tradition, history and a way of life.

Here in Maryland the issue is whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans can commission and display a special license plate featuring the flag. The state pulled the plates after black lawmakers protested, a decision the Sons of Confederate Veterans have taken to court.

How you view the Confederate flag depends largely on whose view of history you choose to believe. Southern sympathizers tend to argue the war was over states' rights, not slavery. The proud and independent South didn't want to be bossed around by the Yankees on any issue - slavery was but one spoke in the wheel of dissension.

Northern history believes this is ridiculous. As Lincoln said in his inaugural address: "One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute."

We've all come to realize, North and South alike, that slavery is indefensible. So if the South admits the war was about slavery it is tantamount to admitting it was wrong. Conversely, by insisting the war turned on slavery, the North grabs the undisputed moral high ground.

It's a tricky question. On one hand, I doubt too many young southern men took of rifles with the idea of preserving slavery - they believed they were preserving their homeland against Yankee oppression and invasion. For them, the Confederate battle flag was indeed a symbol of which to be proud.

Ultimately though, I think it's naive at best, dishonest at worst, to believe there would have been a war had there been no slavery. Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union at all costs; the one issue he appeared unwilling to compromise on was the extension of slavery into new states. Further, when Congress organized committees to try to head off southern secession, the debate always came back to slavery: Was it to be protected? How were fugitives to be treated? Would new states be slave or free?

"Preserving slavery was the non-negotiable imperative of the slave states," writes Kansan historian Phillip Shaw Paludan. "Limiting or destroying the influence of slavery... was the insistent demand of Northern majorities."

With this in mind, it's easy to see how many people, blacks in particular, would associate a strong tie between slavery, prejudice and discrimination and the war flag of the South.

And that's why government sponsorship of the flag, be it above a capitol or on a license plate, is not a good idea.

This is not about free speech. As an individual, you may display any flag you want. You may put Confederate flags in the rear window of your truck. You may display it on a bumper sticker, as a decal, or on a T-shirt. That's the right of free expression. Correspondingly, it's your right to be Catholic; but you can't expect to see a Vatican flag over the courthouse.

On matters of emotion and feeling it's best the government not take sides.

It's true than the Confederate flag has been unfairly commandeered and its history distorted by dark forces - skinheads, neo-Nazis, the Klan - that have nothing to do with the southern tradition. But it's equally true that the banner can never fully divorce itself from the shadow of slavery and prejudice.

There are right reasons and there are wrong reasons for displaying the battle flag of the Confederacy. But those are motives that must be reckoned, not in government or the courts, but in the heart.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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