In case you missed it, the Confederate States of America (CSA) ceased to exist 155 years ago. It will not rise again. The current divisiveness over Confederate symbols, flags, and names for military bases makes no sense to me. As I have written in this space before, there was a time when I was a young boy that I bought into the culture of the “Lost Cause” — the idea of a chivalrous, valiant, and courageous battle of the southern states against the oppressors from the North. But, then I grew up. I learned history. I grasped what the Confederate States stood for. I was appalled that many of the military leaders of the CSA were West Point graduates who swore a solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and that they turned into traitors willing to destroy the country to which they pledged their allegiance. And, oh yeah, they were losers.
Even today one will hear arguments that the war was really about “States Rights” (the right to enslave other human beings), or to preserve a “way of life” (based on the enslavement of other human beings) or to keep their economy from being destroyed (an economy based on free labor from the enslavement of other human beings). It doesn’t take much to realize what all the code words mean.
Arguments that the majority of Confederate soldiers were not slave holders but were merely protecting their families and homes doesn’t hold water when you realize the psychology of those times. While they may not personally have enslaved other human beings, they knew that no matter how bad their life might be, someone else was worse off and could be looked down upon as sub-human, abused, and treated as property — which made their own lot in life more acceptable.
The Defense Authorization Act working its way through Congress contains an amendment to rename the ten U.S. Army bases named after Confederate generals and directs the Department of Defense to no longer name anything after anyone or any battle victory or any other landmark from the Confederacy. The Worst President Ever is threatening to veto the bill — putting in jeopardy the funding for our military currently fighting over seas — because of that provision. Ridiculous.
Let’s look at the facts. Of the ten bases, five were built and named during World War I, five during World War II. Each of the bases were named for a general from that state in an effort to smooth the way for annexation of land needed to build the bases to fight our wars. Local politics was mostly the reason for naming the bases, not some glorification of their military prowess or heroism. Indeed, several of those generals were among the worst in military history, wasting lives on ill-conceived and poorly executed battle plans. Losers.
And the monuments. Yes, let’s look at the Confederate monuments that are now slowly coming down. Of the roughly 740 monuments that remain, almost 700 of them were put up in the decades after 1900. Nearly 400 in 1900-1920 were established in cities and towns. The main source of those statues? A powerful and determined lobbying group we know as the United Daughters of the Confederacy were responsible for the vast majority of them. Ostensibly their cause was to honor their gallant fathers and grandfathers but they were so readily received because in post-Reconstruction America it was a clear signal to Black Americans that they may be free of their enslavement, but the rules and societal norms of the slave era had not changed. Imagine as the free son or daughter of a former slave going to the county court house seeking justice and outside the building is a monument to a Confederate soldier or to someone like John B. Gordon (for whom a fort in Georgia is named) who was later the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. Intimidation was the goal and it clearly sent a signal that there was no justice under any law for Black Americans, regardless of what may be written in the statutes.
The Confederate battle flag came into popular use during the 1950’s and 60’s. For example, it was flown at the state capital in Georgia beginning in 1956 and over the capital in South Carolina in 1962. Coincidentally, one might suppose, with the beginning of the Civil Rights movement? (Thankfully, they were removed after the shooting in a Charleston church in 2015, but not without a political fight. Last week the Mississippi legislature voted to remove it from their state flag.) Just today Mr. Trump got on Twitter and chastised NASCAR officials for banning the flag from their race tracks. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps only recently banned the flag from all of its bases, ships, aircraft and property.
Cries that the removal of these symbols of treason and oppression are attempts to “rewrite history” fall on deaf ears in my case. The only rewriting is the canard that these symbols are somehow proud vestiges of America’s culture and founding principles and that they reflect the American spirit. The only American spirit that they reflect is that of white supremacy. When armed right wing militia groups demonstrate in Michigan or Oregon carrying Confederate flags, they are not celebrating their heritage. They are purposely carrying a symbol of their hate for the “others” — anyone who does not have the same color skin as they do.
Under the First Amendment anyone can fly any flag they care to fly. If some redneck thinks that a giant Confederate battle flag flapping from the back of his pickup truck somehow makes him more manly, have at it. To me it only shows a heaping pile of insecurity on his part. Or ignorance. Or discrimination. Or all of the above. However, no institution in the United States government should be a part of glorifying a shameful part of our history. In my opinion, no corporation, sports authority or any other public entity should support that cause either.
We cannot rewrite history. No one is trying to wipe out our past by advocating for the removal of these symbols. However, we do need to write a fuller history that incorporates all elements of that past. As the cliche goes, we need to include the good, the bad and the ugly and to put it all into context.
Arguments ensue and demagogues rabble rouse over the question of “where does it stop?” How far do we go in understanding the flaws and failures of those who went before us? Outside of the hate mongering and fear laced rhetoric, it is a difficult question. Who should we honor and how should we do that are legitimate questions that deserve consideration through community input, scholarly research, historical context and the realization that no one of us is perfect. Perhaps we differentiate between those that laid out fundamental principles toward which our nation continues to strive versus those that worked to hold back progress and to deny freedom for all.
It seems to me that it is a no-brainer as to where to start. There should be no tax payer supported monuments or other honors for those that forswore their oath to the Constitution, turned into traitors against the United States of America, and fought a war to enforce the enslavement of our fellow Americans.
After 155 years, enough is enough!