Trouble with the world is we're too busy to think about it all right
Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the state house walls?
Tired of hearin' this shit about heritage, not hate
Time to make the world a better place
—Hootie and the Blowfish, Drowning
Byron Thomas is my new hero.
Young Mr. Thomas is a 19 year old freshman at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. According to an Associated Press piece published Sunday, Mr. Thomas has been at the center of a brouhaha with the University over his dorm room décor, to-wit: a Confederate flag. In a spasm of misguided political correctness, school officials asked Mr. Thomas to remove the flag from his dorm room window after a number of other students complained, presumably assuming that the flag was racist and therefore offensive. But here’s the rub:
Byron Thomas is black.
The flag at issue is depicted above: it’s the familiar red flag with diagonal blue stripes running corner to corner, and thirteen white stars within the blue stripes. Contrary to popular belief, this was not the national flag of the Confederacy; that would predominantly have been the “Stars and Bars,” which was similar to the “Betsy Ross” version of the federal Stars and Stripes, with a blue field in the upper left corner, white stars in a circle within the field, and thick red and white horizontal stripes. The flag at issue was the Battle Flag (strictly speaking, because it’s rectangular and not square it’s actually the Navy Jack)
Mr. Thomas says there’s nothing racist about the Confederate Battle Flag/Navy Jack, and he’s absolutely right. The flag design was adopted by the Confederate Army as a means of distinguishing themselves because the Stars and Bars’ similarity to the Stars and Stripes proved confusing in the mayhem of combat. As such, it was, as Mr. Thomas points out, a communication symbol, rather than a symbol of racism.
Yes, but it’s a symbol of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy was all about slavery. Isn’t that racist?
Let’s be clear about something up front. The institution of slavery is an ugly, deplorable part of our history. But it is a fact, and ignoring it or trying to pretend it didn’t happen doesn’t erase it. More importantly, to equate the Confederacy with slavery, or to say the Confederate Battle Flag is a racist symbol because the Civil War was all about slavery grossly oversimplifies things.
As Thomas Jefferson—who, yes, owned slaves, but also at least attempted in his time to introduce legislation to abolish slavery—observed in his autobiography, while the ownership of black slaves was largely a Southern phenomenon, the merchant traders in the North who actually imported them also had an economic stake in the practice:
“The clause [in the draft Declaration of Independence] too, reprobating the enslaving of inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” (emphasis added)
It is misleading to say that slavery was only a Southern thing (and, following from that, that a Southern symbol is inherently a symbol of racism).
Nor is it really correct to say that the Civil War was fought over Southern slavery, and thus a Confederate military icon is therefore a symbol of racism. The seeds of the Civil War were sown in the very formation of the Republic, when the framers struggled with the tension between whether power in a consolidated union would be wielded based on population (which favored the industrial and more heavily populated Northern States), or based on individual States being represented as co-equal sovereigns (favored by the agrarian Southern States). The bicameral (two-house) Legislative Branch ultimately embraced in the Constitution was an imperfect compromise, and by 1861 wealth and population concentration in the North had shifted the balance of power such that the Southern States faced the prospect of being dictated to by the Northern States.
Yes, when it came time for secession the specific issue was slavery, but it could just as easily have been the prospect of a Northern-dominated federal government instituting oppressive environmental restrictions on the cultivation of cotton (EPA, anyone?), or mandating that individual citizens purchase minimum amounts of Northern textiles (Obamacare?). The specific form of the dictation is less important than the fact (or threat of) the dictation itself. And for the North it is worth noting that the Civil War fight wasn’t so much about slavery—Lincoln and the Northern-dominated Congress hadn’t done anything to force the South to end slavery—but about preventing the South from seceding.
I can tell you that, as a white southerner, I don’t look at the Confederate Battle Flag and think about hating black people, and I don’t long for the days of sipping mint juleps on the back porch of the plantation house watching black slaves in the fields. I see it as a symbol of Southern pride, and of State defiance against dictation from an overly-powerful central government; in that sense it has much in common with the Gadsden Flag. Slavery is nothing to be proud of, but the Confederacy and its fundamental political underpinnings are an undeniable part of our history and our heritage in the South—sorry, Darius, but they are. The fact that some groups like the Klan have hijacked the Battle Flag to promote their racist agendas doesn’t make the symbol itself racist, any more than their adoption of the cross or white linens makes those symbols racist. Shall we boycott churches and weddings because they feature racist symbols? To do that is ignore their real significance.
Mr. Thomas understands that. Rather than knee-jerk into an ill-considered assumption of racism, Mr. Thomas encourages us to be more thoughtful before levying that charge. He would have all of us in the South embrace the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of Southern pride, and by doing so, eliminate whatever negative connotation it may have. Those who want to live in a post-racial world could take a cue or two from him.
While Mr. Thomas originally removed the flag after the university’s request, USC-B has since reversed itself, recognizing the importance of Mr. Thomas’ First Amendment rights. Here’s hoping he puts the flag back up if he wants to.