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Pride, prejudice and the Confederate flag

Robert Fikes, Jr.

Five days after the shocking murder of “The Beautiful 9” in a Charleston, South Carolina church, Paul Butler, a black law professor at Georgetown University who earned degrees at Yale and Harvard, caught people completely off guard when during a radio interview he responded to a representative of the Daughters of the Confederacy who said that though she was against the Confederate flag being so prominently displayed in South Carolina, she believed the flag honored her (white) ancestors of whom she was proud. Butler stunned listeners when he calmly but pointedly retorted:

“I have no respect for your ancestors. As far as your ancestors are concerned, I shouldn’t be a law at Georgetown. I should be a slave. That’s why they fought that war. I don’t understand what it means to be proud of a legacy of terrorism and violence. Last week at this time, I was in Israel. The idea that a German would say, you know, that thing we did called the Holocaust was wrong, but I respect the courage of my Nazi ancestors. That wouldn’t happen. The reason that people can say what you said in the United States is because, again, black life doesn’t matter to a lot of people.”

On the heels of Butler’s remarks, Congressman James Clyburn appeared on MSNBC reiterated that his considerable research had uncovered the truth about the Confederate flag wavers: that its supporters are ignorant of the fact that the flag to which they are so emotionally attached, happy to fly above government buildings, and feature prominently at Klan rallies and other “good ol’ boy” events, was not the official flag of the Confederate States during the Civil War, but rather an elongated version of the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia adopted by diehard losers of that bloody conflict. Not that this technicality would matter much to a hateful, fearful, ignorant population clinging to the romantic myth of a glorious past and dedicated above all else to, as the refrain of a one popular song goes, “Keeping the niggers down.”

To outsiders it remains inconceivable how the most articulate latter-day defenders of the flag could pretend that displaying it has simply been a matter of regional pride; that their venerable ancestors were principally concerned with preserving states’ rights — the cruel system of slavery being of little or no consequence to them. And there is another, seldom-mentioned aspect of celebratory Confederate flag waving: blatant, shameless, unconscionable disregard the flag wavers have long exhibited in regards to the sensitivity of African Americans — those directly affected by the nightmare of slavery and racial segregation — parading the flag in public spaces as another demonstration of their power and control, and to hell with what blacks felt about it. This particular brand of arrogance, among other things, has been emblematic of white racists and their apologists.

Or, as President Obama recently expressed it at a memorial for the victims of racist violence in Charleston, “For too long we were blind to the pain the Confederate flag stirred in many of our citizens. It’s true, the flag did not cause these murders,” he asserted, “(but) we all have to 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. We see that now.”

The President then uttered something no other American president had ever been bold enough to confront white Southerners with about their Civil War ancestors. He said, “The cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong.” Immediately following the Charleston massacre, businesses, politicians, and assorted institutions rushed to disassociate themselves from a flag made even more infamous by a 21-year-old Confederate flag-waving madman. Sadly, it took a century and a half for them to do the right thing.

Robert Flikes, Jr. is Librarian, San Diego State University and has published journal articles, essays, encyclopedia entries, bibliographies, and monographs pertaining to history and literature.