Racism Trumps Nostalgia, Parts 10-13

Ten:  Racist Lies and Ties That Bind and “Heritage, Not Hate” Nonsense

It’s not a coincidence that the Confederate flags–especially the battle flag–enjoy a resurgence in popularity every couple of decades.  In fact, it really isn’t a surprising fact amongst most well-adjusted, sane people.  There is a direct correlation between the surges in popularity and visibility and the social context within which they once again thrived.  The KKK and the United Daughters of the Confederacy used it quite prominently during the Reconstruction and Early Jim Crow eras (and, as a curious artifact of history, some Northern groups also adopted the Confederate flag in opposition to Civil Rights and in support of Jim Crow laws).  Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats adopted the battle flag during the earliest stages of the Civil Rights Movement.  Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama employed their flags to protest racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s, with Alabama going so far as to hoist the flag above its state capitol in opposition to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s protest march that began in Selma.  In the late 1980s, the white residents of Forsyth County, Georgia, a county that had nothing but white residents for 75 years, used the flag to protest racial integration.  The Tea Party, which is defined mostly by its vehement opposition to President Barack Obama, supports the use of the Confederate flags and the tolerance for Neo-Confederate groups and, oddly enough, their states’ rights (sound familiar?).

This isn’t just a coincidence.  It is much, much more than that.

One of the prominent modern arguments in defense of the Confederate flags is that it somehow represents heritage, not hate.  However, this line of thought is troubling because it overlooks one key fact:  “heritage” and “hate” aren’t mutually exclusive.  One’s heritage can be a heritage of hate, and one’s hatred can be a product of one’s cultural heritage.  Furthermore, the motto “heritage, not hate” betrays another key fact:  one doesn’t have to accept all of one’s cultural heritage in order to appreciate the positive developments.  It is perfectly reasonable for one to denounce racism and institutional slavery and still find a source of pride in one’s cultural heritage.

To propagate the Confederate flags as heritage symbols is to revise history, to redefine symbols, to whitewash the horrors that the flags represent.  To rid society of those fabrics isn’t an insult to the sources of pride within one’s cultural heritage; it’s a reconfirmation of society’s determination to work towards a social understanding, a racial sensitivity, a utopian society that aims to correct the wrongs and the evils of the past without denying that those evils existed in the first place.  The flags do represent heritage, but it’s a hateful heritage built upon the notion that peoples of color–especially blacks of African descent–are somehow inferior to their white counterparts.

“But what about history?  You can’t erase history!  We shouldn’t forget,” some may say in defense.  And it is true:  we shouldn’t forget, which is precisely why we have museums and history books.  We don’t need Stone Mountain’s bas-relief (more on this in a bit).  We don’t need roads named after Confederate soldiers.  We don’t need a state flag designed to pay homage to the flag of the Confederate States of America, a pseudo-nation built upon sand by traitors who turned against America in the name of slavery.  We don’t need statues of Confederate leaders on state capitol grounds.

This is the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America.

Eleven:  Stone Mountain

Since in the last few days the bas-relief of Stone Mountain has become a focal point, I feel it is necessary to address that topic of concern with a brief history lesson.

In 1915, William J. Simmons founded the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan on top of Stone Mountain.  On the night of Thanksgiving, he and two dozen others dressed in ceremonial white robes and burned a giant cross, all in homage to D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation.  The following year, William and Samuel Venable, the owners of Stone Mountain (Samuel, by the way, was also a Klansman), allowed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to sign a deed for the north face of the mountain for the express purpose of constructing a Confederate memorial.  Renowned sculptor and infamous racist Gutzon Borglum was commissioned as the project’s chief sculptor.  His original vision was an image of General Robert E. Lee, Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, and Gen. Stonewall Jackson riding horseback with artillery troops behind them and–upon the request of Helen Plane, a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the president of its Atlanta chapter–a Ku Klux Klan altar.  According to Plane: “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain,” a further mythologizing of the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.”

During World War I, plans ceased.  Borglum resumed work in 1923 and made his first carvings later that year.  That same year, Samuel Venable gave the Ku Klux Klan expressed permission to hold events and rallies at Stone Mountain whenever they pleased (this right was revoked upon the conclusion of the state’s purchase of the mountain in 1960).  As fundraising efforts continued, the United Daughters of the Confederacy founded the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association, a fundraising group comprised mostly of Klan members.  The following year, Borglum unveiled Lee’s completed head.  However, he eventually abandoned the project in 1925 and went on to carve the Presidents’ heads into Mount Rushmore.    Legendary sculptor Henry Augustus Lukeman was hired to replace Borglum, but all construction ceased in 1928.  In 1958, notoriously racist and segregationist Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin expressed his desire for the state of Georgia to purchase Stone Mountain.  The legislature approved the measure, and construction resumed in 1964 under the guidance of sculptor Walter Hancock.  Roy Faulkner would later replace Hancock and finish the construction of the monument in 1972.

Recently, two arguments in defense of Stone Mountain’s maintenance and preservation have made the rounds:  1) It is a protected monument, so no one can legally destroy it; and 2) it honors the brave soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

As for the first point, so what?  Yes, Stone Mountain is a protected monument and no one has the legal authority to order or participate in its destruction.  However, laws can change.  The ability to amend or repeal laws is a cornerstone of our democracy; it’s a principle upon which our very Constitution relies.  Without the ability to change or toss laws, the country would look very different today:  no one under 21 would be able to vote, black people would still be considered “property,” and abortion procedures would be illegal.

As for the second point, I must refer back to the previous discussion regarding the relationship between “heritage” and “hatred.”  Why should anyone celebrate the Confederate soldiers?  They were traitors who fought against America because they wanted to preserve their so-called right to subjugate and enslave anyone who did not have white skin.  Why should these racists be celebrated?  Jefferson Davis was arrested for treason after the Civil War, and even Confederate veterans turned against him.  The only people who respected Davis upon his death were the staunch proponents of the “Lost Cause” myth, which heralded Davis as an anti-hero of sorts.

Gen. Robert E. Lee believed that slavery was beneficial for black people.  When his father-in-law died, he expressly stipulated that Lee free one his slaves.  He actually refused to do so until a court of law ordered him.  During Reconstruction, the Virginia legislature asked Lee what he believed the state should do about the newly-freed blacks.  His response?  Ship them to Alabama to preserve Virginia’s white-utopian society and rid themselves of the horrible, horrible blacks.

In 1864, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest became the first self-proclaimed Grand Wizard of the KKK.  Does he deserve honor for his service in the Confederacy’s battle to preserve slavery?  Why should anyone respect or honor people for participating in a war in which said participation is a willful defense of barbarism, atrocity, and inhumanity?  These aren’t heroes, and calling them such diminishes the heroism and bravery of men and women in the armed forces who really do deserve honor, respect, and praise.

Twelve:  The Southern Mythos, Part 3:  Black Confederate Soldiers

One of the most controversial topics amongst Civil War historians, the notion of “black Confederates” is something that is naturally a bit hard to swallow, considering the Confederacy’s ideology and platform.  However, there is some evidence that black soldiers fought on the side of the Confederate States of America, but it isn’t exactly what you might expect when you hear the term “black Confederate.”

First off, the Confederate States of America legally prohibited black people from fighting until the final month of the Civil War, which was reasonable considering the recent slave insurrections against white plantation owners.  The newly formed Colored Confederate Troops were doomed from the start, as the Confederacy had little money to do much of anything at that point.  Their numbers are estimated to have been around 3,000 members, compared to the estimated 20-50,000 slaves forced to work as labor workers prior to the group’s formation.  In all, 99.5% of the Confederate troops were white, while only 0.5% were black.

But the fact remains there:  there were, indeed, black troops that fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  However, this doesn’t mean they necessarily fought willingly and for the same causes.  In fact, many black Confederates were forced to perform as labor workers (free black laborers used this as a means to combat starvation and poverty), while the majority of the troops were coerced into fighting (even though, since the war ended a month after the Confederacy legalized the service of black troops, none ever saw battle as a company).  Furthermore, the black troops who did fight didn’t necessarily do it for the same reasons as the white Confederate troops, who fought to maintain the states’ rights to preserve the institution of slavery as a source of economic growth.  They, instead, fought to protect themselves and those around them.

Given this fact, it is perfectly reasonable to consider these men heroic or brave, in the same way that we might herald any surviving or fallen victim of institutional slavery as heroic or brave in light of immense pain, torture, and agony they faced every single day of their lives, whether awake or asleep.  But they are not heroes for the reasons that Confederate apologists and neo-Confederates argue.  They were not willing participants, and their existences do not negate the fact that the Civil War was fought for the Southern states’ self-proclaimed rights to preserve and expand the institution of slavery by any means and to any extent they so pleased.  There is, alas, ample proof.

To use another example: in Louisiana and Tennessee, light-skinned black troops formed small coalitions in support of the Confederacy.  However, Tennessee would not allow the members of that state’s groups the right to carry armed weaponry, while the Louisiana Native Guards (as they were called) never saw action and, in fact, joined the Union’s armed forces when the Union troops reached Louisiana.  Frederick Douglass vouched for the existence of black Confederate troops, but there is unfortunately no proof that he in fact witnessed them himself (he wrote his editorial pieces in New York, far away from the battlegrounds of which he wrote; also, Douglass wrote about black Confederates in an attempt to convince Northern leaders to allow black troops to fight for the Union).  Douglass did, however, flat-out deny the existence of willing black Confederate soldiers in a speech he gave in 1862.

So, yes, black Confederate troops existed, but the issue is far more complicated than that and not as clear-cut and positively optimistic as most Confederate apologists and neo-Confederates might lead one to believe.

Thirteen:  Constitutional Rights

There is a grand, popular misunderstanding that the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution govern all aspects of life, private and public.  This, of course, is simply not true.  Constitutional rights only govern the relationships between public or private entities and government bodies.  That is to say, it only dictates the rights we have when dealing with state or federal governmental agencies.  This means that the federal government, for example, cannot prohibit all forms of free speech but private companies like Wal-Mart can.  This is the reason why restaurants can ban customers from carrying armed weaponry into their establishments but the government cannot outright ban the ownership of handguns for everyone.  It’s the reason why the national office of a fraternity can close a chapter house for using racial slurs but the government cannot outright ban any utterance of a racial slur.  So, if a place of business chooses to no longer sell an item, then the discontinuation of that item does not violate your personal Constitutional rights.  Wal-Mart and other places can choose to ban the Confederate flags and merchandise containing their images, just as you have the Constitutional right to purchase that flag from someone else who does sell it.

This brings me to a second misconception:  the government has the right to place limits on our Constitutional rights.  Most people, especially hardcore advocates for the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), seem to think that there are no limits on the rights enumerated in the Constitution and that to place limits would inherently violate said rights.  However, this is flat-out wrong.  The Supreme Court has rules numerous times that the government can place reasonable limits on Constitutional rights and that there are no such things as “absolute” rights.  It’s the reason why someone convicted of child pornography, inciting a riot, or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater cannot claim innocence on Free Speech grounds.  It’s also the reason why an individual cannot own a nuclear warhead or army tank and cite the Second Amendment in defense.  This is also the reason why the federal government can ban a federal agency’s use of the Confederate flags but not one’s personal use of said flags.

If Congress wanted to do so, it very well could ban the use of Confederate flags at federal cemeteries, federal buildings, and even some state institutions (courthouses, schools, capitol buildings, etc.).  However, this isn’t the same as banning Confederate flags for personal use.  Congress cannot ban a merchandiser from selling the flags, and they cannot ban a person from purchasing one, just as they cannot ban the purchase of a Nazi flag.

So, in essence, just because Congress may ban the use of the Confederate flags for federal agencies and some merchandisers have chosen to no longer sell them, it doesn’t mean that anyone violated your Constitutional rights.

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