THE ISSUE: It’s past time for Alabama to recognize that the Confederate flag is a symbol less of rebellion than of tragic mistakes. It is deeply offensive to many in the state, and it is too often embraced by those espousing hate.
Here in the Deep South, we are steeped in the intricacies of the Confederate States of America and the battle flag that has become its enduring symbol.
The Confederate states did not secede from the union over the slavery issue, we try to believe, but over the nobler principle of states’ rights. The battle flag, and “The Stainless Banner” that incorporated it into the official flag of the Confederacy in 1863, is about protest and courage and the rejection of federal sovereignty.
And certainly it is true the Civil War was not entirely about slavery. Other issues divided the nation, issues that began simmering in 1781 when the Articles of Confederation were dissolved, the U.S. Constitution was adopted and the federal government became supreme over state governments.
Photos of Dylann Storm Roof, however, should give us pause. Shortly before police say he killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he posted a manifesto and photographs of himself on a website. The manifesto was a rant about white supremacy. In most of the photos, he is holding the Confederate battle flag.
The mere fact that a lunatic with bloodlust adopts a symbol for his twisted cause is not reason to abandon that symbol, but it is a good time to evaluate it.
While the issue of states’ rights was indeed the cause that triggered the Civil War, the right in controversy was the ownership of human beings.
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, speaking in Georgia a few weeks before shots were fired on Fort Sumter, explained in detail the reasons for secession. Some of the reasons — such as the South’s objection to tariffs — had nothing to do with slavery.
But the main reasons had everything to do with it.
“The new (Confederate) Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” Stephens said on March 21, 1861. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; 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 moral condition.”
In 1863, when the battle flag was incorporated into the official flag of the Confederacy — a solid white flag with the battle flag in the corner — the designer of “The Stainless Banner” explained the meaning:
“As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”
It is hardly surprising white supremacists like Roof cling to the Confederate battle flag. Nor is it surprising many in Alabama and around the world see the flag as a symbol of racism and oppression.
The surprise is so many people who reject the idea of white supremacy, who abhor the concept of slavery, still venerate the Confederate flag. The surprise is Alabama flies the flag at the Confederate soldiers’ memorial on the Capitol grounds, that it issues license plates with Confederate flags and that the flag decorates so many vehicles. The surprise is of Alabama’s 13 state holidays, three memorialize its Confederate past.
For four of its 195 years, Alabama was a Confederate state. Those years remain a part of state history, but should no longer color its future.
It’s time to put away the symbols as such of the past.
(Published June 24, 2015)