In her speech calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina state house grounds, Governor Nikki Haley expertly summarized the renewed debate over the meaning of the Stars and Bars.
“For many people in our state,” Governor Haley said. “The flag stands for traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry. At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”
If the Confederate flag is offensive, by all means, remove it; however, this popular opinion is expressed even though most people are unfamiliar with the history of the Stars and Bars.
The original Stars and Bars (white stars on blue background bordered by alternating red and white horizontal stripes) was the first official flag of the Confederacy from March 1861 to May of 1863. The seven stars represented the union of the original Confederate states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The more widely recognized Confederate Battle Flag, the “Southern Cross”, represented eleven Confederate states (the original seven joined by Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia plus Kentucky and Missouri). The second official flag of the Confederacy placed the Southern Cross against a white background; the third official flag added a broad vertical red bar to the right edge of the white background. The Confederate Navy Jack, the Stars and Bars on red background adopted by the Confederacy in 1863 has become the familiar symbol of the South. That the Stars and Bars has evolved into a symbol of bigotry is a sorrowful consequence of history and abject human failure, but the issue here is complicated and goes far beyond a flag. Sadly, by murdering nine innocent people (a definite hate crime) in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and by being photographed holding the Stars and Bars, Dylann Roof focused the country on the issue of bigotry rather than the mental illness that drove the 21 year old to seek a “race war” in the first place.
As Governor Haley pointed out, for some, the Confederate flag represents Southern culture, a tribute to the men who bravely represented their individual states in service to the Confederacy. For others, the flag as is a painful reminder the Confederacy defended the enslavement of human beings and, thus, is a symbol of bigotry. As the saying goes, “it is what it is.” What are we arguing about here? For heaven’s sake, the Confederacy and the Union no longer exist; we are one United States. If the majority regards the Stars and Bars flying in South Carolina as offensive, cease debating and remove the flag.
A note of caution is in order, however. We must exercise logic going forward and guard against the domino effect. Removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds should not lead to a hysterical rush to rewrite history. If you hide the painful truth in our nation’s past, we will not learn and will repeat our mistakes. And removing the Stars and Bars will not alleviate bigotry. Bigotry comes from humans, not flags.