When it comes to understanding history, our recognition of humanity’s past sins becomes sharper in the present. And it isn’t simply our understanding of the facts that provide this clarity, but a fine-tuning of the human moral compass which causes us to look back on certain eras and wonder about the people involved: what were they thinking?
Often, this sharpening of the moral picture is aided by important visual cues from the time, for example, the swastika of Nazi Germany, which reminds us of a time when anti-Semitism and mass delusion combined to plunge the world into war. Closer to home, some of the symbols of racial hatred – Ku Klux Klan hoods and burning crosses, to pick just two –remind us of a painful period in our own country’s history.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Confederate Battle Flag, which continues to be widely flown, worn, tattooed, and stuck to bumpers one hundred and fifty years following the defeat of those who fought under it to perpetuate human slavery.
Although the dominant story this summer has been the controversy surrounding South Carolina’s (now discontinued) practice of flying the flag at their State House, I’ve been waiting for the bigger shoe to drop in Mississippi, which it finally did earlier this week.
The Mississippi state flag continues to feature an emblem of the Confederate Battle Flag, making it the only remaining state flag that incorporates that symbol. On Monday, Mississippi native and author John Grisham penned a full page advertisement condemming the flag in a state newspaper and was joined by a lengthy list of prominent people in support.
The ad said, in part: “It is simply not fair, or honorable, to ask black Mississippians to attend schools, compete in athletic events, work in the public sector, serve in the National Guard, and go about their normal lives with a state flag that glorifies a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved.”
This is not the first time this issue has been raised in Mississippi or elsewhere in the South. Georgia removed the Confederate symbol from its own state flag in 2001, which coincidentally was the same year Mississippi voters voted to keep it. My guess is that the next vote in Mississippi – whenever that is – will lead to a different result, although the fact that it has endured this long suggests caution before making bold predictions.
To be sure, there are situations today where political correctness has run amok, and the fear of offending becomes so powerful that other freedoms suffer. However, the controversy regarding Mississippi’s state flag is not one of those situations.
Proving that history often is more about forgetting than remembering, some would like to explain away the history of the Confederate flag by assigning new meanings to it, such as regional pride or an anti-establishment attitude. But the following story from when the flag was born carries with it a different message.
In the summer of 1835, the future Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, and his young family took a trip from their native New York to the South by carriage. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s seminal book about the Lincoln administration, Team of Rivals, there is a short paragraph taken from Seward’s notes during the trip that compels us to confront the harsh reality of slavery.
While on a road outside of Richmond, the Seward family happened upon a group of slave children who were chained together. In Seward’s words: “Ten naked little boys, between six and twelve years old, tied together, two and two, by their wrists, were all fastened to a long rope, and followed by a tall, gaunt white man, who, with his long lash, whipped up the sad and weary little procession, drove it to the horse-trough to drink, and thence to a shed, where they lay down on the ground and sobbed and moaned themselves to sleep.” Goodwin goes on to write that the children were being marched to Richmond to be auctioned after having been purchased from different plantations that day.
Take a moment and consider what that must have been like.
Forget the overwhelming statistics of slavery and the enormous sweep of history, and instead consider the terror felt by those children on that particular road, on that exact day. Think also about the anguish and powerlessness their parents were feeling at that very moment, just hours after their child had been taken from them and tied to a rope.
Then, consider the following: The South went to war to continue and extend that moment, as well as the many thousands of moments exactly like it. And the symbol for their cause was the Confederate flag.
Published August 22, 2015.
Update: In the wake of racial protests following the George Floyd killing, the Governor of Mississippi signed the order to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag On June 30th, 2020.