Diplomacy can't hide pain felt over flag

May 18, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE JOURNALISM dodge, there is an expression "burying the lead." It means you left your best stuff for the end, where it might go unnoticed. This was an act committed the other day by Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president, who was trying to be a gentleman about this Confederate flag business in South Carolina and did not precisely speak his mind until his news conference was nearly over.

For about 30 minutes, Mfume was statesmanlike and diplomatic. He used terms such as "sovereign" and "compromise" and "nonviolent spirit of love." He answered a radio commentator's barrage of questions about current sales figures for the flag, and black soldiers' enlistment figures in the Confederate army and, finally, about South Carolina's decision to shift the flag from its Statehouse to a high-profile location nearby deemed equally offensive by those who see the colors not only as a symbol of the fight to save slavery, but also as a defiant sneer at all modern struggles for racial fairness in America.

And then Mfume blurted something that seemed to surprise everyone, including himself, but takes us to the nub of the matter of displaying the Confederate flag.

"My history," he said, his voice finally tightening, "is seeing it on the back of pickup trucks and the people inside yelling `Nigger' at me."

The news conference ended a few moments later, but the memory lingers on -- of Mfume's words, and his visible pain, and of the sad debate over this banner that cheered on the defenders of secession and slavery 135 years ago.

We have been down this road before. It is not only about the Confederate flag, but about a whole range of human history, which is so messy, and so vulnerable to shifts of interpretation and to the winds of change. Yesterday's heroes may become tomorrow's embarrassments. What one generation finds moving, another finds laughable.

What do we do with our history? Where do we store it so that it will cause us the least discomfort, when it becomes not merely unfashionable but painful?

"We're not asking anybody to change school names, or street names, or take down statues of Robert E. Lee," Mfume said. Nor is he asking Americans not to display any cherished material in their homes -- or on their bumper stickers.

But, in the matter of the Confederate flag, the NAACP says it is wrong to display it on state grounds, or high above the Statehouse. The Statehouse is supposed to be everyone's house -- not just those on one side of a dreadful war.

The flag has stood for too much suffering and continues to symbolize divisiveness. And we all know the counter-arguments: that it's meant only to honor those brave lads who selflessly gave their lives in battle; that it's an ancient symbol of Southern pride having nothing to do with racism.

To this, there are two responses, which the defenders wish no one would bring up: The Confederate flag did not fly over the South Carolina Capitol for 97 years, from the end of the Civil War until the heart of the modern civil rights movement. When black people were seeking the right to vote, and to use the same public schools and drinking fountains as white people, the flag was rehoisted in South Carolina as a stick-in-the-eye gesture of defiance.

Second, the NAACP is not trying to end freedom of expression. It has not asked for a ban on the flag, only that it not be displayed in a place of "sovereignty," above the Statehouse or at its new location, equally prominent, still on state grounds: now a larger version of the flag, now illuminated, on a 30-foot flagpole.

The NAACP has offered three options: encase the flag in the Confederate relic room at the University of South Carolina; erect a granite and bronze monument emblazoned with an emblem of the flag; or display the flag as one of several carried by South Carolinians during battle in the major wars.

The South Carolina legislature has rejected all three options, a decision it regrets financially, as the NAACP economic sanctions have reportedly cost the state millions in tourist and convention dollars. And now Mfume says he will meet with entertainers, and with college officials, about extending the sanctions to sports and entertainment.

When he ended his news conference at the NAACP national headquarters here Tuesday, Mfume talked about the arguments he hears from the flag's defenders.

"They say, `We don't dislike you. We're not bigots. It's just part of our heritage.' But it's part of our pain. You know, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union. That flag says we take pride in the fact that we seceded.

"And it continues to allow us to think about slavery in a sanitized way. It's just data, it's just symbols. But it isn't. It's about human suffering."

Some of that suffering was the enslavement of human beings. Some of it, merely the sound of an epithet hollered from a pickup truck with an emblem on its bumper sticker.

Both acts come from the same instinct, which continues to cause pain. And who would want to do that to another human being?

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