Sunday, June 21, 2015

Take it Down, Pt 2

Yesterday, on my Facebook page, we had a spirited debate about the proper place for the Confederate flag. I support the removal of the flag from all SC government buildings. It is not a flag that should still be displayed on government property; its proper place is in a museum.

The issue of slavery was, of course, broached in the debate. It is really impossible to discuss the Civil War without discussing the topic of slavery, the white (supremacist) elephant in the room. The discussion led to the oft-repeated line that the Civil War was not fought over slavery at all, but rather over states’ rights and the federal government’s interference with states’ sovereignty. I think many of the folks that make this claim counter that saying the Civil War WAS fought over slavery are simply race-baiting in a discussion that should not involve race at all.

So I did some research. I saw a tweet that linked to the text of the Cause of Secession drafted by the State of South Carolina to justify the state’s decision to secede from the Union, adopted December 24, 1860. I went and read it. You should, too. It is both interesting and enlightening.

South Carolina, the first state to secede, denounces the Union’s inability and unwillingness to maintain its end of the compact agreed upon at the creation of the United States of America and the enacting of its Constitution. South Carolina decries the Union’s interference in SC’s internal affairs and states that the US government has become hostile to its right of sovereignty.

Te very first sentence of the statement reads as follows:

“The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union…”

So there you have it. FIRST LINE. The Civil War was implicitly and explicitly fought over States’s rights, NOT slavery. The rest of the document continually refers back to the Union's repeated breaches of contract. Pretty clear cut sentiments about SC's right to leave if the contract (in this case, the Constitution) has been violated.

Except…the authors of the text then immediately said THIS in the second half of the first paragraph:

“…but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.” [Emphasis mine.]

Slavery mentioned in the FIRST paragraph. Maybe that's just mentioned for the point of clarity?

Nope. Throughout the entire statement, the authors don’t hold back in talking about their right to own slaves, which is odd since the war is not supposed to be about slavery. Only the race-baiters bring up slavery in regards to the Civil War, right?

Here's a few choice selections for you to peruse (edited for this post, but the full text is available HERE):

“…The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due…This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made…

…But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution…

…In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution…

Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation…”

And here’s where the point is driven home most clearly [bold emphasis mine]:

“…We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection…

…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens
; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety…

…The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief

That’s a lot of ink spilt about protecting slavery for a war that evidently had nothing to do with.

We can dress our debates up in legalese, we can talk in broad strokes about sovereignty and state’s rights and so forth, but we cannot decouple the Civil War from slavery. South Carolina seceded from the Union and fought a treasonous war because their ability to own other humans as slaves was threatened, and they were pissed that other states were no longer willing to tolerate the existence of such a system in the Union. These are not my words. The words are THEIRS. If we truly want to honor history, stop revising their rationale for the war and recognize it for what it was. Yes, the South fought because their way of life was threatened and was becoming untenable in the Union. But not because the North suddenly became the villain; their way of life was threatened because it was based upon evil, and their enemy was not the North, but rather truth and the harsh light of justice. 

I'm not trying to demonize our Southern forefathers. You must judge those who came before us in their own context to understand history. But that doesn't validate injustices or excuse actions committed in the past in support of terrible deeds. The Confederate flag that was carried into battle to defend this system has no place of honor anywhere in our society other than in a museum. Take down this flag. Remember our past, but let's move forward and not be beholden to the mistakes of our ancestors.

Take It Down, Pt 1

This last Saturday evening, June 20th, I attended a rally on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the SC statehouse grounds. It used to fly prominently on the dome of the Statehouse before a compromise in the year 2000 removed it from the Statehouse and placed it in its present spot, displayed by a larger Confederate memorial monument in front of the Statehouse. This has always been and continues to be a very polarizing issue for SC. This current push is in reaction to the gunman who killed 9 members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Images of the gunman waving the Confederate flag have appeared in the media and prompted renewed calls for the flag to removed.

When I got home that evening, I signed an online petition in support of removing the flag, and subsequently posted the link to the petition on my Facebook page. Soon after, I received a comment asking a legitimate question:

“Why take it down? When has a flag ever harmed anyone?”

This question kicked off a long, passionate debate, one that reflected all sides of the issue and one that thankfully remained civil. I am not going post the content of the debate here, but I do want to share a paraphrased summary of my personal comments and opinions in regards to this issue.

So, let’s again revisit the question: “Why take it down? When has a flag ever harmed anyone?

I don't believe a flag itself has ever hurt anyone. But a flag by its very nature is symbolic, representing the values of those that fly its colors. This particular flag flew over an especially troubling era in our nation's history and more recently has been repurposed in other troubling ways by certain segments of our population. The flag and what it represented has a rightful place in our country's history, but it should not be celebrated on the SC statehouse grounds or any other government building. It should be in museums, the very institutions created to celebrate and record our heritage and history.

It should be noted that the US flag has ALSO flown over a plethora of very troubling events in our history. That said, the Confederacy lost. The USA is still our country, a work in progress, and not a lost cause. Unsavory history and all, the US is our country so we honor our flag as we make our way forward as a nation. The Confederacy is an also-ran, one for the history books. Its flags and other symbols should be a part of our past, not our present or our future. It should not fly on government buildings.

This flag upsets lots of people for very legitimate reasons. Honestly, the sight of the flag doesn't personally upset me; I've seen it my whole life and barely even register it when I see it. However, I choose to listen to the voices of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues who feel that it legitimizes systemic discrimination. When a sizable chunk of our population feels not just uncomfortable but scared when they see it, we should respect that and take it down. People are still free to fly it on their personal property or their businesses. I just feel it has no place still representing our state. I certainly don't need it to represent any values I may hold.

You cannot separate the Confederacy and state's rights from the fact that the Secessionist states who flew this particular flag were fighting to protect the existing of a slave regime. I'm born and bred in Mississippi and live in South Carolina right now. I've lived almost my whole life in the South, and I love the South. I get that the Civil War was more nuanced than "pro-slave, anti-slave." But you just can't separate slavery from the cause. The South tried to protect its way of life which was fundamentally based on the most severely unjust system possible. And thank God the South lost. 

Removing the flag is the easy part of the much larger task of addressing all the social ills we face. But if the flag is still held up by many as an important symbol of Southern heritage, then certainly it must be recognized equally maintain power as a negative image as well. Surely the removal of the flag from government buildings can also be a very meaningful symbolic act in and of itself. Removing the flag won't necessarily change a thing, but it’s a hell of a nice gesture with which to start.

[At this point in the conversation, someone stated that to disavow the Confederate flag was disrespectful to the memory of many people’s Confederate ancestors that fought under its colors. The individual stated that the Civil War was not about slavery, but rather was about states’ rights and individuals defending their lands and families.]

I think most Southern folks with deep roots in the South have confederate ancestors. I am related to Confederate soldiers and had relatives that were indeed slave owners. We have handwritten letters in our family from Confederate camps, as well as copies of legal documents that show the names and genders of the slaves my relatives owned, listed on the same list as furniture and other property. I think this stuff is super cool to look at and I'm glad we have it. It's a fascinating glimpse at the history of the South and my own family history. I didn't know my relatives, but I like to think these were noble men.

That said, I'm glad they lost the war. They may have been noble but their cause was based around supporting an unjust system. As a born and bred Southerner, I feel no reason honor this cause. We must understand the actions of our ancestors from their contextual framework, but that doesn't mean I must excuse a belief system that is fundamentally against what I believe to be true. You cannot deny that the South was protecting a way of life built upon slave ownership. It was an unjust system and if they had won the war, slavery would have continued and possible expanded. And that is why I say thank God the South lost the war. It doesn't matter what values were being defended, the alternative scenario would have been untenable from a human rights perspective.

That said, at Saturday’s rally to have the flag removed from the SC Statehouse grounds, the flag itself was never demonized. There was actually an earnest and heartfelt call to honor the flag for what it was: a symbol that many of our ancestors fought under in support of their cause, which they believed was noble. (And it should be noted that likely 80% of the crowd was White, so the rally was really speaking to majority that would have had Confederate ancestors). But the flag has been repurposed too many times by people resisting change and clinging to an outdated and false memory of a glorious Old South.

The flag causes pain for many people, and for that reason we need to listen to our fellow Americans and we need to remove the flag from our government buildings. Let’s honor our heritage and move forward together- all race, creeds, and colors. As one of the speakers at the rally stated, let’s reclaim the idea of “Southern Pride” as being pride in what we can accomplish together as a vibrant and diverse people, looking forward, learning from our past. Let’s move forward together for a better future for our state. We certainly don’t need to drag along a contentious symbol of oppression along with us.