The South Carolina Senate’s vote to remove the Confederate battle flag is an important first step towards honestly addressing our shared history, and the ways its legacy still haunts us 150 years after the end of the Civil War.
The state Senate voted Tuesday 36 to 3 to banish the flag from state capitol grounds. The state House has now taken up the debate, and lawmakers have proposed dozens of amendments to the bill. The flag could come down by the end of the week, unless the House complicates matters.
The flag, which was removed from the state Capitol dome in 2000, became the focus of controversy after 21-year-old white supremacist and confessed murderer Dylann Roof shot and killed state senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight other parishioners, during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof allegedly wanted to start a “race war.” Many took it as an affront to the victims that the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol remained at full mast, even as the U.S. flag flew at half mast.
That touched off a backlash against the flag. Major retailers announced they would stop selling Confederate flags and related merchandise, including: Google, Amazon, Walmart, , Sears, EBay, Etsy, Target, and Spencer Gifts. NASCAR asked fans not to display the flag at NASCAR events, but stopped short of banning it altogether.
Republican lawmakers awkwardly distanced themselves from the Confederate flag, after years of supporting it and courting the constituency that embraced it. Long before she called for the flag to come down, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said shortly after the Emanuel shooting, “It’s him, not the flag,” referring to Roof. During her re-election campaign, Haley defended the flag as merely a symbol of Southern “grit”.
For conservatives, the controversy is an occasion to duck and cover, until the matter blows over. For progressives, it’s a chance to bring together two separate stories about a shared history and heritage, and begin to address how that shared heritage impacts our present.
Defenders of the flag often say it represents “heritage, not hate.” Yet, white supremacy was inherent to slavery as practiced in the South. Confederate leaders said as much, and none so plainly as Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in his famous “Cornerstone Speech.”
Our new government is founded upon…its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Confederates didn’t invent slavery. They reinvented it. Slaves in other cultures were still considered human beings, were thus afforded some rights. They were not considered “inferior” by nature, but merely unfortunate enough to fall into poverty or become prisoners of war. The slavery practiced in and defended by the Confederacy differed from ancient slavery in its foundation in white supremacy and the subjugation of black people.
Slavery is inseparable from the Confederacy and its cause. It was essential to the South’s economy. In 1860, one in three people who lived in the South were owned as property. Their collective value was about $3 billion. The farmland they worked was worth much more, and only unpaid slave labor could work it so cheaply. Confederate president Jefferson Davis reminded his Congress in 1861 that slavery was “indispensable” to the southern economy.
Segregationists and white supremacists like Roof do not distort the true meaning of the Confederate flag by adopting it. White supremacy and the subjugation of black people were the cornerstones of the Confederacy and the “way of life” it sought to defend.
Thus , any honest discussion of history or “heritage” has to begin with a truth that President Obama invoked in his eulogy of Rev. Pinckney.
“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. **It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought—the cause of slavery—was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong,”** he said. “It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”
It won’t be easy. A recent CNN poll shows that 57 percent of Americans believe the flag represents “Southern pride,” while only 33 percent feel it is primarily a racist symbol. As stunning as those statistics seem, they represent a long, slow decline in support for the Confederate flag. A Gallup poll taken in 2000 showed that 59 percent of Americans felt the flag represented “Southern Pride,” while 28 percent saw it as a symbol of racism. In 1992, 69 percent of Americans saw the flag as a symbols of “Southern pride,” while just 22 percent saw it as a symbol of racism.
After the war, Confederate leaders tried to obscure the importance of slavery in the Civil War. Davis wrote that slavery “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Alexander Stephens later contradicted his “Cornerstone Speech,” and dismissed slavery as a primary reason for the Civil War.
Today, that historical revision is reflected by conservatives’ efforts to defend slavery and downplay the brutality at the heart of a system that denied the very humanity of black people. It is echoed in the questions Margaret Biser heard from white visitors during her six years as a plantation tour guide. Biser writes that some seemed genuinely ignorant about the realities of slavery, while others insisted that slavery wasn’t all that bad.
These attitudes may also reflect how conservatives whitewashed the teaching of history in some states. Social studies textbooks issued to 5 million students in Texas public schools minimize the role of slavery in the Civil War, and omit any mention of Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan. The textbooks come five years after conservatives on the state board of education revised the curriculum. South Carolina’s guidelines for teachers describe slavery in vague terms, while colonizers and slaveholders are mostly viewed positively. One lesson plan insists that the Civil Was wasn’t fought over slavery.
As a result, we are stuck in an ideological tug-of-war over a symbol of a shared history and heritage. That history became personal for me when I began doing genealogical research in college. I discovered my great-great-great grandfather Henry Heath, who was born a slave on the plantation of John Burge Heath in Talbot County, Georgia, in 1847. Though he was just a child at the time, Henry Heath was not listed with his parents in the 1850 slave schedule. His name appeared on a list of the family’s male slaves sorted by name. The trail went cold.
However, I found an entry about John Burge Heath in a copy of A Rockaway In Talbot, in the university library. The plantation house was still standing. That gave me hope that records might exist somewhere that could give me more information someday. Some years later, I blogged about the experience of finding not only a slave ancestor, but the slaveowner whose surname I have today.
Then two years ago, I received an email from a man named Luke. He’d read several of my blog posts, and he happened across my post about discovering my great-great-great grandfather. He revealed that his great-great-great grandfather had owned my great-great-great grandfather. Luke offered me access to any information about his ancestor that I might find helpful, and was interested in any information I could share about the lives of the slaves on the plantation. It took me an entire day just to absorb the connection that had just been made.
It impressed me that Luke took it upon himself to contact me. He certainly didn’t have to, not knowing how I might respond. I wrote back to him, and it was the beginning of a friendly and rewarding correspondence. I couldn’t share much about the lives of the slaves on the plantation. Nor could I confirm whether his great-great-grandfather did indeed free over 100 slaves just before the war, but my research showed that my ancestors disappeared from slave schedules after 1850, and didn’t show up again until the first census after the Civil War, in 1870.
As a result of our correspondence, I resumed my genealogical research online, Thanks to the research of a relative of mine, I traced my family back to my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Dolly, also owned by the Heath family, and born in Virginia, in 1765. The biggest reward of my correspondence with Luke is just being able to reach out across our shared history, and narrow the divide between what have been two separate stories for too long.
What’s happening in South Carolina may offer an opportunity to reach out to one another across our shared history and heritage, without being impeded by painful symbols. If we can do that, then maybe we can begin to address how the legacy of our shared history haunts our present, and begin to banish its ghosts.