Do Only the Feelings of Blacks Count?by Elizabeth Wright, editor, Issues & Views, quarterly of alternative black opinion
On April 9, 1998, Virginia's Governor James Gilmore proclaimed April as Confederate History Month. This action immediately drew angry protests from the blacks who, each year, organize to prevent just such a proclamation. King Salim Khalfani, of the NAACP's Virginia State Conference, claimed that his organization was "not pleased that April once again will commemorate Confederate History and Heritage Month."
His statement put in a nutshell the goal of the civil rights establishment. That goal is to eradicate all symbols of the Confederate past once celebrated by most Southern white Americans.
In his declaration, Governor Gilmore denounced slavery as a practice that "deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights."
However, this acknowledgement of a negative aspect of the Southern past was not enough to satisfy the keepers of the civil rights flame.
Khalfani's recalcitrance underscores the battle that has been simmering between Southerners who strive to preserve the Confederate heritage and blacks who now have acquired the political clout to undermine such efforts. Feeling under siege, memorializers of the Confederacy are reeling from a series of persecutions, beginning with demands for the destruction of particular Southern statues and monuments, to a call for the abolition of Confederate holidays, to the brutal murder by black youths of Michael Westerman, a white man whose "racist" crime was to display the Confederate flag on his jeep.
The NAACP and an assortment of black "activists," scratching around for visible signs of white "racism," have now fixed on the historical Confederacy, especially as represented by the Confederate flag, that is still close to the hearts of so many Southerners.
In 1991, the NAACP issued a "Confederate Flag Resolution," in which it referred to the flag as an "abhorrence to all Americans and decent people" and an "odious blight upon the universe." Since then, black activists have refused to turn down the volume of their heated denunciations of symbols of the Old South.
Wayne Byrd, of the Heritage Preservation Association, does not find himself alone when referring to the NAACP as a "racist hate group." Byrd's stinging remark, uttered in reaction to black objections to Governor Gilmore's declaration, seems almost shocking in an age when an accommodating media and a penitent, contrite public tend to treat the demands of civil rights advocates as sacrosanct and off limits to criticism.
As if the rebukes coming from blacks are not enough, today's white Southerners must endure the calumny of being piled on by other whites, who are fearful of appearing incorrect on the issue of Southern culture. Such whites, seeking to distance themselves from a scorned period in history, almost daily place obstacles in the way of the new Confederate Heritage supporters.
For example, in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, the city council ordered Confederate flags removed from Southern memorials. At Virginia Military Institute, orders were given to remove all Confederate symbols from the campus. In several towns, students have been suspended from schools for wearing T-shirts with Confederate logos, and parade permits are denied Confederate groups. There are now ongoing attempts to change the names of schools and public places originally named for Confederate heroes of the Civil War.
These are just a few of the dozens of "heritage violations," as they are called by the modern day Confederate heritage supporters, who bristle at attempts by intolerant opponents to outlaw cornerstones of their history.
The Heritage Preservation Association is just one of several organizations that have been formed in recent years to give voice to those who defend the right to honor the southern past. Also prominent is the League of the South, a group that encourages reverence for the Confederacy and its cultural symbols, that has branches in all the Southern states.
In 1995, a legal defense group was founded. Until recently, Confederates hesitated to get embroiled in legal battles over their right to publicly acknowledge the past. In March, 1996 however, the Southern Legal Resource Center faced off with the Pickens Civitan Club that sponsors the annual Azalea Festival in Pickens, South Carolina.
Threatened with a lawsuit, festival officials decided to reinstate booth space for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose application they had previously rejected. The SCV organization has maintained a Confederate booth at the annual festival for years, but this year they encountered hostile forces.
Once shy about entering into political controversy, various Camps of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have now become active in protecting their right to memorialize their ancestors. On the Internet, several dozen websites now exist to share the history of the past and keep Confederate sympathizers informed about current events. There are listserves, or discussion groups, where strategies for confronting opposition are among the main topics.
Time will tell if such organizing is too little, too late, given the years spent by the NAACP and its media supporters to publicly disparage Southern history and to equate all things Confederate with racism.
To justify trampling on the rights of Southrons, their enemies intrude extraneous arguments about slavery, segregation and past attitudes of bigotry. Yet it is clear that the only issue here is one of constitutional rights. Do white Southerners have the same freedom of expression as blacks? The NAACP claims that blacks experience "hurt feelings" and "feel uncomfortable" when viewing symbols such as the Confederate flag.
Even if this is so, does it preclude the right of whites to display such symbols?
These might seem like ironic questions given the years of complaints by blacks, who have made a fetish of wresting away from whites the right to interpret black history and cultural identity. Do only the feelings of blacks count when it comes to interpreting history? Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the display of any flag is protected by First Amendment rights, this fact appears to be lost on those who would protect black sensibilities.
Who has the final word on interpreting the meaning of a symbol?
Whenever opponents of Kwanzaa contend that this holiday was invented to undermine the uniqueness of Christmas and the significance of Christ, Kwanzaa advocates swiftly deny the claim. They then explain their version of what the holiday and its symbols mean to them. A great many white Southerners, whose sentiments are far removed from the racist tendencies of a bygone era, feel that association with the old Confederacy, in the words of historian Eugene Genovese, links them with "those who value privacy and a responsible individualism that resists state intervention in community, family, and personal life."
Those who admire the old Confederacy's obstinate refusal to give in to an overbearing government are not relegated only to Southern partisans. Modern day Southrons are not alone in comparing their ancestors' struggle to free themselves from an unconstitutional government to today's dissidents who make similar charges against the excessive authority of federal as well as state governments.
As is evident from a series of recent events, some of them tragic, we live in an era of growing disgruntlement over the heavy-handed role of government. There is protest on the home front from diverse political quarters--libertarians, who are staunch opponents of burdensome government, are joined by conservatives, left-leaning progressives, and varying shades of populists.
Non-Southerners have adopted the Confederate spirit of rebellion, as they crusade against perversions of the Constitution, which include: an ever-growing central government, whose power to intervene in state and local affairs seems unlimited; a federal judiciary that usurps for itself new duties and, in some cases, even levies taxes on the people; district judges who prohibit the implementation of Propositions duly voted into law, thereby overriding the will of the people; and questionable, if not illegal government seizures of private property.
Over the years, symbols of the Confederacy have been known to show up in foreign countries where secessionist movements seek to overthrow tyrannical powers. Like many powerful symbols, the Confederate flag potentially has multiple meanings--certainly more than the narrow emphasis on slavery and segregation relegated to it by the NAACP.
In the 1960s, radicals claimed that Old Glory represented the imperialistic tyranny of the United States. They set about burning it, shredding it, and sometimes performing gross acts upon it. Even today, for many Americans, the American flag is a symbol of despotism. Should their objections be taken seriously?
In the minds of some Puerto Ricans, the flag of Puerto Rico carries a negation of American sovereignty over their island. In New York City, at least a week leading up to the annual Puerto Rico Day parade, my Bronx neighborhood is inundated with hundreds of flags of this commonwealth territory. Flags hang from windows and fire escapes, they fly from cars and trucks, and decorate baby strollers and shopping carts. Some hardy souls even manage to hang them high atop lamp posts.
Is the flag of Puerto Rico to be granted more protection than the indigenous Confederate flag?
A common belief among many blacks is that civil rights pertain only to them. It is considered acceptable for me, a black woman, to celebrate May 19, the birthday of Malcolm X, yet a white who reveres Jefferson Davis is expected to hide his reverence in a closet.
One would think that, of all groups, blacks would be the last to pick other people's heroes for them.
Blacks who publicly speak out on the issue of Confederate observance are almost unanimous in their disregard of the rights of Southerners. The subject of constitutional rights is usually sidetracked in favor of vituperation over past injustices. An exception is Terry Foster, a reporter for the Detroit News. In an article last December, where he called the Confederate flag "a banner of hate," Foster insisted on the right of others to carry or display the flag.
He wrote, "With that said, this is America. There are things called freedom of speech, freedom of choice and freedom of expression."
Concerning the ongoing furor over the administration's attempt to ban the display of the Confederate flag on the campus of the University of Mississippi, Foster claimed that "It is the fans' right to carry the flag to the game. I would not try to stop it, even if I had the power. Neither should anyone else." He called the right to free expression and choice the "bedrock" on which this country is founded.
Preventing the display of the Confederate flag and other Southern memorabilia has nothing to do with lessening "anguish" among blacks, but has everything to do with asserting power. For those blacks who feel that the tables are now turned in the South, the power to flex political muscle is irresistible.
Yet it is a power that must be resisted, since it possibly could lead to tragic consequences. It is not farfetched to surmise that the rhetoric of condemnation regularly flowing from the civil rights camp might have sparked an unfortunate incident last March in Oxford, Mississippi.
One night, over 15 black youths stormed into the Rebel Barn convenience store, vandalized it by tearing to shreds several hanging Confederate flags, while shouting anti-white slogans and threatening violence to the store employees. Will similar incidents be the tinderbox that ultimately sets off widespread retaliation?
Such potential strife could be avoided, if responsible leaders brought more light to bear on the rights of all citizens, and turned down the heated rhetoric that can only set back attempts at racial harmony.
Elizabeth Wright is editor of Issues & Views, a quarterly newsletter of alternative black opinion, published since 1985. The website edition is at: http://www.issues-views.com Elizabeth Wright, P.O. Box 467, Cathedral Station, New York, NY 10025 (718) 655-7847 email: DEliz@aol.com