What Happens After The Confederate Flag Comes Down
July 8, 2015by terrance
What Happens After The Confederate Flag Comes Down
South Carolina senate’s vote to remove the Confederate battle flag is an important first step towards honestly addressing our shared history, and the ways its legacy still haunts us 150 years after the end of the Civil War.
The South Carolina senate voted 36 to 3 to banish the flag from state capitol grounds. The state House has now taken up the debate, and lawmakers have proposed dozens of amendments to the bill passed by the state senate. The flag could come down by the end of the week, unless the House complicates matters.
For conservatives, the controversy is an occasion to duck and cover, until the matter blows over. For progressives, it’s a chance to bring together two separate stories about a shared history and heritage, and begin to address how that shared heritage impacts our present.
Defenders of the flag often say it represents “heritage, not hate.” Yet, white supremacy was inherent to slavery as practiced in the South. Confederate leaders said as much, and none so plainly as Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in his famous “Cornerstone Speech.”
Our new government is founded upon…its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Segregationists and white supremacists like Roof do not distort the true meaning of the Confederate flag by adopting it. White supremacy and the subjugation of black people were the cornerstones of the Confederacy and the “way of life” it sought to defend.
“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 an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought—the cause of slavery—was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong,”** he said. “It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
It won’t be easy. A recent CNN poll shows that 57 percent of Americans believe the flag represents “Southern pride,” while only 33 percent feel it is primarily a racist symbol. As stunning as those statistics seem, they represent a long slow decline in support for the Confederate flag. A Gallup poll taken in 2000 showed that 59 percent of Americans felt the flag represented “Southern Pride,” while 28 percent saw it as a symbol of racism. In 1992, 69 percent of Americans saw the flag as a symbols of “Southern pride,” while just 22 percent saw it as a symbol of racism.
After the war, Confederate leaders tried to obscure the importance of slavery in the Civil War. Davis wrote that slavery “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Alexander Stephens later contradicted his “Cornerstone Speech,” and dismissed slavery as a primary reason for the Civil War.
Today, that historical revision is reflected by conservatives’ efforts to defend slavery and downplay the brutality at the heart of a system that denied the very humanity of black people. It is echoed in the questions Margaret Biser heard from white visitors during her six years as a plantation tour guide. Biser writes that some seemed genuinely ignorant about the realities of slavery, while others insisted that slavery wasn’t all that bad.
As a result, we are stuck in an ideological tug-of-war over a symbol of a shared history and heritage. That history became personal for me when I began doing genealogical research in college. I discovered my great-great-great grandfather Henry Heath, who was born a slave on the plantation of John Burge Heath in Talbot County, Georgia, in 1847. Though he was just a child at the time, Henry Heath was not listed with his parents in the 1850 slave schedule. His name appeared on a list of the family’s male slaves sorted by name. The trail went cold.
Then two years ago, I received an email from a man named Luke. He’d read several of my blog posts, and he happened across my post about discovering my great-great-great grandfather. He revealed that his great-great-great grandfather had owned my great-great-great grandfather. Luke offered me access to any information about his ancestor that I might find helpful, and was interested in any information I could share about the lives of the slaves on the plantation. It took me an entire day just to absorb the connection that had just been made.
It impressed me that Luke took it upon himself to contact me. He certainly didn’t have to, not knowing how I might respond. I wrote back to him, and it was the beginning of a friendly and rewarding correspondence. I couldn’t share much about the lives of the slaves on the plantation. Nor could I confirm whether his great-great-grandfather did indeed free over 100 slaves just before the war, but my research showed that my ancestors disappeared from slave schedules after 1850, and didn’t show up again until the first census after the Civil War, in 1870.
As a result of our correspondence, I resumed my genealogical research online, Thanks to the research of a relative of mine, I traced my family back to my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Dolly, also owned by the Heath family, and born in Virginia, in 1765. The biggest reward of my correspondence with Luke is just being able to reach out across our shared history, and narrow the divide between what have been two separate stories for too long.
What’s happening in South Carolina may offer an opportunity to reach out to one another across our shared history and heritage, without being impeded by painful symbols. If we can do that, then maybe we can begin to address how the legacy of our shared history haunts our present, and begin to banish its ghosts.