South Carolinians haven't proven pride in their flag is exclusive of racist past

January 16, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

THE EVE of the official celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday might be a good time to weigh in on the flap over the Confederate flag flying atop South Carolina's Capitol.

The NAACP has called for a boycott of the state until the Stars and Bars is lowered. Some South Carolinians have resisted. Last week, 6,000 marched to proclaim that the flag represents Southern heritage and pride. It should never come down, they shouted.

But let's get the reaction of South Carolinians, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others who still cherish the Stars and Bars, to the flag being in a place where its image clearly shouldn't be, but is. It might help explain why many blacks -- in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and out -- feel the Confederate flag represents racism and slavery. Flag defenders need to consider the boycott is inspired not only by what the flag represented back in the 1860s, but in the 1960s as well.

Along Highway 80 in Alabama stands a lone marker. It reads "In memory of our sister Viola Liuzzo, who gave her life in the struggle for the right to vote on March 25, 1965."

Women from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference erected the marker in 1991. It's been vandalized three times, most recently in 1997 when vandals spray-painted the image of the Stars and Bars on the monument.

Liuzzo was a Detroit housewife and mother who participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights in March 1965. On the night of March 25, she was shuttling marchers from Montgomery to Selma when a car filled with Ku Klux Klansmen pulled up alongside. One of them shot and killed Liuzzo.

Here's the dilemma for Confederate flag supporters. The hate groups -- the KKK, the skinheads and others who use the flag -- are desecrating its meaning, they claim. The flag is not about hate, but heritage. But sometimes hatred can be part of your heritage.

The KKK was, after all, started by Confederate veterans. If the Stars and Bars doesn't represent the beliefs and values of these men, devotees of the Confederate flag need to kindly explain to us how it doesn't. Flag supporters have directed more ire at the NAACP than they ever have at the KKK and other white supremacist groups.

And to date, no Confederate group has bothered to visit the Liuzzo memorial and clean off the image of the Stars and Bars, which everyone should agree has no place on that marker.

Unless, of course, racism and hatred are part of the Southern heritage. And if white Southerners are honest with themselves, they'll have to acknowledge it is. It's fine to trumpet your heritage as one of valiantly resisting an oppressive federal government (and the Confederate flag-wavers may have a valid point there), but you can't embrace one part of your heritage and reject another. When Southerners claim they fought the War for Southern Independence not because of slavery but for states' rights, they have to say what those rights included. They have to confess that Liuzzo, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and four little girls named Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson were killed in the name of states' rights.

And because those who genuflect whenever the Confederate flag is shown insist that it is not a flag that represents racism and slavery -- the Constitution of the Confederate States of America's protection of human bondage notwithstanding -- let's evaluate the CSA without a reference to race.

It was an oligarchic society where the rich ruled and where poor whites were scorned and kept as illiterate, ill-educated and ignorant as black slaves. That's why the poor whites of the 35 counties in western Virginia refused to go along with the War Against Northern Aggression and became the state of West Virginia, siding with the Union. That's why many poor whites in eastern Tennessee were pro-Union.

The more sagacious among you will no doubt see the irony in people from the region with the most lynchings and which introduced the heinous and cruel prison farm system to the nation preening about its heritage, which includes subjecting its black population to the worst form of state-sponsored terrorism ever seen in a democracy from the years 1865 to 1965. That's why when blacks see the Stars and Bars flying proudly atop the capitol building in South Carolina, they see no heroic symbol of fighting for the noble principle of states' rights. They see an expression of deep regret that white Southerners weren't able to finish the job on its black citizens.

And might that Confederate flag spray-painted on Viola Liuzzo's memorial be an expression of pride in the killing of someone who held an opposing opinion?

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