Little honor lies in historic use of the Confederate flag

February 02, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

G. Elliott Cummings, with whom I agree on much that happened in the 20th century but on little that happened in the 19th, wants me to get it right.

Cummings is a former commander of the Col. Harry W. Gilmor Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Maryland division (SCV). My Jan. 16 column referred to the flag flapping above the South Carolina statehouse as the "Stars and Bars." The flag in question is, Cummings said, the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. The Stars and Bars is another Confederate flag, a cute little number with a white stripe between two red ones with a circle of 13 stars on a blue square in the upper left-hand corner. The battle flag, on the other hand, is the famous blue cross inscribed with 13 stars on a red background.

Now here I thought I had given these guys a break by calling it the Stars and Bars. Maybe it would be better if the Stars and Bars were flying above the South Carolina statehouse. Because, having a Confederate battle banner there makes us ask: What is South Carolina battling against? Might it be equal rights for black citizens?

Cummings wrote that the battle flag honors the 20,000 South Carolina Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. But the South Carolina statehouse isn't a war memorial. It's an official government building financed by all of South Carolina's citizens, many -- some 30 percent -- of whom happen to be black. If the South Carolina Legislature insisted on hoisting a Confederate flag in 1962, maybe it would have done better to use the Stars and Bars. Because the battle flag we've seen before, haven't we?

When scores of whites demonstrated against the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas' Central High School in 1957 and spouted hate-filled invective at the handful of black students as they tried to walk in the doors, didn't newsreels show some of the demonstrators waving that battle flag? Didn't we see it again in 1962 as rioters battled U.S. marshals to prevent James Meredith, an African-American, from enrolling in the University of Mississippi? More than two dozen U.S. marshals were injured in the fray.

We even saw it in a Chicago suburb in 1966, when hecklers raised it as they harangued Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others marching for open housing. In fact, whenever there was a civil rights demonstration in the late 1950s or 1960s, we saw that battle flag waved in defiance. And it wasn't being waved to honor Confederate war dead. Some black Vietnam veterans who served in 1968 swear that the battle flag was displayed proudly by some white servicemen after King was assassinated on April 4.

But, SCV types tell us, the battle flag has been "expropriated" by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan who "desecrate" its true meaning. But those women spewing hatred at Central High in 1957 probably didn't belong to the Klan. Nor did the guys taunting Meredith as he walked through the doors of Ole Miss. The KKK was only the most vocal and visible portion of one of the most virulently racist societies ever.

After the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed in 1963 and four black girls were killed, Morris Dees, now head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, asked parishioners at a white church to take up a collection for the victims' families. Author Mary Stanton, in telling the incident in her biography of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, said two-thirds of the congregation got up and walked out. Most of them probably weren't in the Klan either.

The SCV would have us believe they love black folks now, as did those South Carolina Confederates who died fighting the Union. Assuming that's true, we must be compelled to ask the SCV where it was when its voice was really needed. Where was this profession of love when Freedom Riders were being viciously beaten in Montgomery, Ala.? Where were the SCV letters of outrage to Gov. George Wallace in 1963, urging him to find and prosecute the men who bombed 16th Street Baptist Church? Where was the voice of the SCV when Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Miss., in 1963?

Were they honest with themselves, today's SCV members would admit that they face the continuing dispute over the display of the Confederate battle flag because their forbears of the 1950s and 1960s were silent when they should have spoken out. Instead of showing the courage of their ancestors who faced Union guns at Gettysburg and Bull Run, they shrank away in cowardice at a time when a protest against violence and hatred was needed.

It's either that, or SCV members of the 1950s and 1960s fully supported the bigotry, beatings and murder occurring in their midst. It also is why today's members' claims that the battle flag flies only to honor Confederate dead and celebrate Confederate heritage fall deaf on so many black ears.

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