A Flag That Symbolized the Opposite of the American Ideal

July 11, 1994|By GREGORY P. KANE

A group of blacks has urged that South Carolina be boycotted because it is the last state whose government flies the Confederate battle flag from its capitol building.

Perhaps not unpredictably, they have been depicted as a group of horrible, bilious Negroes trying to impose their version of political correctness on a beleaguered majority. They now join the company of Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., who last year persuaded the Senate not to renew an official government patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy insignia which contained the symbol of the Confederate battle flag.

Latter-day sympathizers with the Confederacy wrote disgruntled letters to the editor. The tone of the missives suggested they felt Senator Braun was comfortably wedged on the morality scale a few notches above anti-Christ and just a couple below ax murderers. Their dudgeon was puzzling. They were on the losing side of that issue, but it's a position they should be used to -- considering the fanatical devotion they show to a country that got its brains beaten out 129 years ago.

But the sympathizers seem to have support. A Louis Harris poll showed that ''American adults -- by a ratio of 3 to 1 -- see no reason to remove the Confederate emblem from state flags in the South. . . . Well over two-thirds of black Americans see nothing personally offensive in the states' use of the Confederate flag.''

The figures should make you wonder exactly which black Americans these pollsters talked to. No one from the Louis Harris poll ever asked me anything, but I can give several reasons for objecting to the Confederate flag. Not the least of them was given by Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy who minced no words in describing what his country stood for:

''Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [to the idea that all men are created equal]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery . . . is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.''

So the Confederate government was one dedicated to white supremacy. Any flag representing that government symbolizes white supremacy. All the claims given by Confederate sympathizers that secession was inspired by the noble goals of freedom and independence do not erase Mr. Stephens' words from history.

But the flag in question is the Confederate battle flag, the apologists claim. It symbolizes the brave men who fought and died for the Confederacy. In the words of G. Elliott Cummings, the commander of the Maryland division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, ''The confederate soldier and his flags are an honorable part of this nation's past and deserve the respect of all of us.''

But the battle flag must also be the same flag Confederate troops fought under when they shot black soldiers trying to surrender at Fort Pillow, Poison Spring and the battle of the Crater. The policy of the Confederate government toward black Union soldiers captured in battle differed from its policy on white Union soldiers captured in battle.

If they were lucky, captured black soldiers were sold into slavery. Evidence exists to show that the South simply executed others. According to historian James M. McPherson:

* When a rebel commando raid seized four blacks in Union uniforms on a South Carolina island in November, Secretary of War James A. Seddon and President Davis approved their ''summary execution'' as an ''example'' to discourage the arming of slaves.

* Black prisoners of war were sometimes ''shot while attempting to escape.'' A Confederate colonel whose regiment captured a squad of black soldiers in Louisiana reported that when some of them tried to escape, ''I then ordered every one shot, and with my six-shooter I assisted in the execution of the order.'' A North Carolina soldier wrote to his mother that after a skirmish with a black regiment ''several [were] taken prisoner and afterwards either bayoneted or burnt.''

* An affidavit by a Union sergeant described what happened after Confederates recaptured Plymouth on the North Carolina coast in April 1864:

''All the Negroes found in blue uniform or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him was killed -- I saw some taken into the woods and hung -- Others I saw stripped of all their clothing, and they stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverwards and then they were shot -- Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the Rebels. . . . All were not killed the day of the capture -- Those that were not, were placed in a room with their officers, they [the officers] having previously been dragged through the town with ropes around their necks, where they were kept confined until the following morning when the remainder of the black soldiers were killed.''

Such is the record of the Confederacy toward black soldiers who fought for the Union. The record reflects the attitude of the Confederate States of America toward black people in general. Latter-day worshipers of the Confederacy will forgive us if we don't join them in genuflecting to its battle flag -- or if we ask that it be removed from our sight whenever possible.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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