The NAACP and the Confederate Flag

By now most of you are aware that the NAACP is once again pushing the state of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds. In 2000 the flag was removed from atop the Capitol dome to a position near the Confederate Soldier Monument. First, let me say that I believe the NAACP has the right to protest a symbol that they believe to be offensive. Anyone who knows the history of that flag, especially during the era of “Massive Resistance”, must understand the perspective of African Americans. The idea that any one individual has a monopoly on the proper interpretation of such a divisive symbol is simply to fail to understand the epistemology of public symbols. I also want to say that I support the mission of the NAACP even though I do not agree with all of their programs and public positions. I say this this to preface the fact that I do not understand their decision to continue this protest in South Carolina.

My objection boils down to the belief that this protest will only work to further divide the parties involved. We are at a point now where neither side is really interested in understanding one another’s perspective and this leads to public statements and accusations that tend to generalize about the motivations of various institutions and organizations. The upshot is little or no opportunity to find common ground or even the space to communicate with one another in an honest and open manner.

That said, my biggest complaint with the NAACP is that they are misappropriating their resources. There simply is no way to win this fight. I would much rather see the NAACP focus on reconnecting African Americans with the Civil War and its emancipationist legacy. The Civil War Sesquicentennial is right around the corner, yet you wouldn’t know it if you perused the NAACP’s website. Instead of spending valuable hours and funds on the display of the Confederate flag I advocate pushing new symbols that demonstrate both the richness of black history as well as the centrality of the Civil War to the greatest story of freedom that this nation can tell.

Although I have no way of measuring, it seems to me that most African Americans care little about the Civil War. This is not entirely the fault of black Americans since for much of the twentieth century little in the way of black history was taught in public schools and when it was taught it tended to be slanted towards an interpretation written by white Americans with the intention of being consumed by white Americans. In recent years, however, museums, historical societies, and especially the National Park Service have taken steps specifically geared to attracting black Americans and yet little has changed. The NAACP should be engaged in reclaiming the Civil War as the central moment in the history of black America. Such a move would go much further in challenging defenders of the Confederate flag who claim that it is simply a symbol of the common soldier without any connection to how that symbol functioned in an army whose purpose was to defend a slave society.

The NAACP could organize tours of Civil War battlefields, especially at places where USCTs took part and helped shape the course of the war, and their website could easily include more information that would be useful to teachers and general readers alike. Wouldn’t this be a more meaningful use of one’s time and resources rather than removing one Confederate flag?

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21 comments… add one

  • Tim Aug 6, 2008

    I agree with you completely, but the NAACP won’t do anything like you suggest because it wouldn’t get the press coverage the flag issue gets. Plus it’s a lot easier to complain about the flag than to prepare an educational program to explore African American involvement in the Civil War.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 6, 2008

    In that sense the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the NAACP have much more in common than you might think.

  • Jarret Aug 6, 2008

    Working as a TA at the University of Calgary, I’ve found (so far at least)that students in Canada (black and white)approach the civil War from a refreshingly distant stance. In other words, they are VERY interested in the war and its legacies, and they know what the Confederate flag stands for, but they do not, obviously, carry the kind of partisan baggage that you so often see in the US. The point I’m trying to make is that when the Civil War is approached from a de-personalized angle, it often allows for more nuanced and rewarding classroom discussion.

    On the other hand, I often see rebel flag stickers on vehicles in Alberta. I guess it shows just how much that flag has become a generic “symbol” of “rebellion” in which its actual meanings are largely ignored.

    - Jarret

  • TF Smith Aug 7, 2008

    Aren’t there a lot of ex-pat Americans in Alberta because of the oil industry? If so, I’d expect mnore than a few “oil patch” Americans from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, etc might be the source of the confederate flags.

  • matthew mckeon Aug 8, 2008

    The NAACP is an political organization that is trying to achieve political goals. It’s not a academic/educational institution.

    As others have said, its not about the 1860s, the flag is about the 1950s(and later).

  • Jarret Aug 8, 2008

    TF,

    Yea, there are tons of American oil guys up here. So you could be right.

    - Jarret

  • Marvin W. Miller Aug 20, 2008

    In the period of the presidencial primaries several comments were aimed againt Barack Obama, now the Democrat front runner. These comment hit every news media in America and around the world. Each one were race related againt their own kind. These comment came not only from Obama’s ex-minister, but from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. It was mostly because Obama wants to bring the white and blacks together and abolish racizm all together. In my opinion the leaders of the NAACP movement are the one’s who keep the racial fire aflame and don’t want it any other way. As for as a flag that someone want to use as a display, a symble of their heritage, I do feel they have a right to do so, but If it is used as a symble of hate, than it should not be allowed. I have found that the NAACP don’t have to have a cause to protest against something, they look for reasons. It is also a fact that a lot of black churches in the northern states are peaching more about race issues that they are about Jesus Christ.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2008

    Marvin, — Thanks for taking the time to write. It’s always nice to hear from a first-time commenter. I agree that the Primary season has been divisive and comments about race suggest not only the complexity of the issue, but how far we’ve come over the past few decades. I think the racial comments came from across the political and racial spectrum, at least that’s what I remember of it. As for the NAACP, I think any serious assessment will take more than a short blog comment.

    The Confederate flag is perceived by one group to be a symbol of racism while another group believes it reflects the best of white Southern heritage. If that is our starting point than the question is where do we go from here. My post was meant to suggest that the NAACP needs to play more of a proactive role in this rather than simply beating a tired issue. It was not to suggest they ought to bear all or even most of the blame.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  • dylan Apr 6, 2009

    thanks! for your insight and knowledge. you really inspired me. your the best in the world!!!!!!!

  • Tom Jantz Mar 31, 2011

    Greetings again Kevin! I have some food for thought. Should the American flag be changed? There was slavery under that banner for far longer than the Confederate flag! The truth, I believe, is that while many people are offended by the Confederate flag {battle flag} there are many people offended that the flag is looked at as a flag to be offensive to other people.. I think the key word here is “intent”. Perhaps Americans should stop degrading the Confederate flag and the Confederacy and look at the slavery that exsisted in this Country as a whole. It is very sad to say but slavery really ended when it was realized that it was cheaper to hire people to work instead of having to feed, house and clothe slaves. I do not mean to paint with a broad brush as there were many in this country who wanted to eliminate slavery for the right reasons including anti-slavery organizations in the southern states estimated by one count to be well over 100. Anyway, thanks for your time! Hope all is well with everyone reading this! God speed to one and all! Tom in Mich.

    • Andy Hall Mar 31, 2011

      Tom, I would respectfully argue that the offense many people take to the Confederate Battle Flag has far less to do with the Confederacy or the Civil War or slavery as an institution, than the way it’s been repeatedly and consistently used since the 1940s, as a symbol of intimidation, of segregation, and Jim Crow. This is not ancient history; millions of Americans experienced this first-hand, themselves. And I’m not talking about the Klan, either, but broad swathes of white Southerners, ostensibly “respectable” citizens like Strom Thurmond, Orval Faubus, George Wallace and members of the segregationist Citizens’ Councils, who incorporated it as part of their newsletter masthead.Those things drive opposition to the CBF today far, far more than anything that happened 150 years ago.

      Southern heritage groups cannot uniquely define the “meaning” of the CBF, any more than the Klan or the NAACP can. But it’s deeply foolish, I think, for Southern heritage groups to tell others, as some do, that their opposition to display of the flag is based on an ignorance of history. Quite the opposite, in fact; those who object to it seem to me to have a far better grasp of the history of the flag and how it’s been used across the South over the last 150 years than those who argue it’s solely about Southern valor and sacrifice, and nothing else.

      • Andy Hall Mar 31, 2011

        Also, re: the American flag. Yes, the American flag flew over the institution of slavery for decades. And the American flag flew on the pole at Manzanar, and outside the Old Court House in St. Louis.

        But it was also the flag carried by USCTs when they liberated slaves on Southern plantations. It was the flag of Lewis and Clark. It was also the flag sworn to by the U.S. marshals at Little Rock, the flag on Suribachi, and the flag Neil Armstrong planted on the Moon.

        One takes a symbol like that as a whole, the good and the bad, in all its long history. That applies to the Confederate Battle Flag, as well.

        • Bob Pollock Mar 31, 2011

          Tom,

          While it is true that the United States countenanced slavery for too long, it is also true that the nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal; a statement of freedom, and although all the founding fathers may not have lived up to their declarations, they planted a seed which has grown and borne fruit here and around the world. This stands in sharp contrast to the Confederacy which was founded, as Alexander Stephens so famously stated, on a cornerstone of slavery.

          “It is very sad to say but slavery really ended when it was realized that it was cheaper to hire people to work instead of having to feed, house and clothe slaves.”

          What exactly are you basing this assertion on?

          And where were these 100 anti-slavery organizations and in what year?

          • Andy Hall Mar 31, 2011

            It’s worth noting that while the original U.S. Constitution acknowledged the institution of slavery, the Confederate constitution was hard-wired to protect and preserve it, including a clause that prohibited the C.S. congress from passing any law “denying or impairing the right of property in negro [sic.] slaves.” No state or jurisdiction was permitted to interfere with any citizens’ “right of property in said slaves.” Restrictions and provisions like that are shot all through the document. You cannot read that document without it being very, very clear issue what lay at the core of the Confederacy.

            Little Alec wasn’t kidding about that “cornerstone” stuff, was he?

  • Bill Nash Jun 4, 2011

    It is very evident when I read comments from the various web sites that the Civil War never ended on some level-but I digress… The “Lost Cause” folks try hard to minimize, deny, and excuse away the fact that the C.S.A. (so-called) was built on an immoral foundation of slavery. That fact alone made it wrong. All other talk about “states rights”-etc. may have some validity-but doesn’t make up for or justify the platform of slavery built-in to the Confederacy.

  • Tom Jantz Jun 7, 2011

    Greetings everyone. The fact that the south had more slaves was because of climate. Most of the plantations were in the states with longer growing seasons. Nobody in their right mind can justify the souths defence of slavery, the question is this “should the northern states have invaded the southern states for any reason? It must be remembered that the northern slave traders brought the slaves into NORTHERN ports in northern states and then sold most of their human cargo to southern plantation owners and northerners who owned southern plantations. If a foreign country invaded the United States to free the slaves after we became an independant country should we have not put up a fight because we had slaves and were unworthy of defending ourselves? To defend the Confederacy is not the same as defending slavery. On our currency are many Presidents who were slave owners [Washington had about 300 slaves]. Another President on our currency is Lincoln who wanted to send all blacks to other countries and said it is not possible to live togeter peacefully. Lincoln asked “who will pay for the Government if the southern states leave” or something to that effect. It seems strange that Lincoln did not free the slaves in the Northern staes before or during the war. Even the Emansipation Proclamation only referred to slaves in the Confederacy that were not occupied by Union troops, hard to believe!, but true!. It seems the “stain” of slavery has been transferred onto the Confederate flag from the American flag to make some Americans feel better. Just a few thoughts on the subject. Hope all is weel with everyone. I welcome any feedback. Tom in Michigan.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2011

      With all due respect, your first sentence reflects an overly simplistic view as to why slavery was more prevalent in the south. Your reference to Lincoln’s colonization plans is also much too vague. Finally, Lincoln did not free the slaves in the Northern states because their state legislatures had already done so following the Revolution. The new states carved out of the Northwest Ordnance never included slaves.

    • Bob Huddleston Jun 7, 2011

      No, the Yankee slave traders did not take slaves into Yankee ports then transship them South_- that would have been a stupid waste of that precious commodity with a perishable cargo, time. Besides, the international slave trade was not a “Yankee” monopoly: Southerners were in it up to their proverbial eyeballs.

      When South Carolina reopened the slave trade in 1804, *all* of the States, including South Carolina, had outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa before the Constitutional prohibition could be acted on – only South Carolina then reversed itself.

      From January 1, 1804 to the legal end of the Trade on December 31, 1807, 202 ships entered Charleston with slaves: 3 were French, 70 were British, 59 were from Rhode Island, 4 from Baltimore, two from Norfolk, one from Sweden, one from Boston, one from Connecticut – and 61 belonging to Charleston. (Speech of Sen. William Smith of South Carolina, _Annals of Congress_, 16th Congress, 2nd Session, pp. 73-77, Friday, December 8, 1820. The speech is online at the Library of Congress site, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llac&fileName=037/llac037.db&recNum=2 [that’s a long one: I would suggest you copy and paste it!])

      Foreign countries: 74 (of these, 70 were British)
      Southern ports: 67 (of these, 61 were from Charleston itself)
      Northern ports: 61 (of these, 59 were from Rhode Island)

      Without reducing any of the culpability of Yankees (more specifically Rhode Islanders), it would appear that, of the last legal slave ships entering the United States, fully a third were owned by slave state entrepreneurs.

      In addition, after the United States and the United Kingdom banned the slave trade, there continued to be illegal runs into slave states.

      The majority of the ships involved in the slave trade after 1808 were built on the Chesapeake in the slave state of Maryland. The most famous slaver of all, the _Amistad_, was a Baltimore-designed but Cuban built black birder. The type of ship used was the “Baltimore clipper,” designed to carry large numbers of men at a high speed: they were used as privateers, but that business ended in 1815. (Howard I. Chapelle, _The Search For Speed Under Sail 1700 – 1855_, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1947, pp. 287-319). Afloat in Baltimore harbor today is an “1815 privateer,” the _Pride of Baltimore II_ — the type used as privateers and, after the War of 1812, easily converted into slave ships.

      One of the last, if not the last, slave ship sailing under the protection of the United States flag was the New York built yacht the _Wanderer_ owned by C.A.L. Lamar of Georgia. He bragged about his exploits and when an over zealous deputy US Marshall seized some of the Africans on one of Lamar’s plantations, Lamar sued him for damages. The marshall was a Georgian – but so was the jury that found the marshal guilty. Lamar was killed in early 1865 as a Confederate colonel. A brother was L.Q.C. Lamar, congressman and post-war, US Supreme Court justice. C.A.L. Lamar was related by marriage to Howell Cobb, Buchanan’s Secretary of the Treasury. (see Tom H. Wells, _The Slave Ship Wanderer_, University of Georgia Press, 1987).

      • Andy Hall Jun 7, 2011

        Bob, thanks for posting this. FWIW, the notion that the institution of slavery and the slave trade was purely a Northern phenomenon is a popular trope among the Southron Heritage crowd — its was exclusively Yankee ships, Yankee ship owners, Yankee ports that drove the transatlantic slave trade, and thus bears full responsibility for the existence of slavery in the South. Whether he realizes it or not, Tom’s assertion is simply deflection of moral opprobrium that attaches to the institution. Those wicked Yankees made us have slaves.

    • Margaret D. Blough Jun 7, 2011

      Charleston, S.C. was a major slave port & South Carolinians (Including the respected Laurens family) were involved in the international slave trade. I also think it would be stretching it to call ports like Baltimore a northern port. Massachusetts abolished slavery within the state before the Constitution was even considered. and Pennsylvania began the process in 1780. Between the ratification of the Constitution and the end of the Constitutional moratorium on Congressional legislation prohibiting the importation of people that each state chose to admit, it was up to individual states as to whether or not to allow such importation. By 1806, South Carolina was the only state that did not prohibit importation of African slaves. Ironically, it had prohibited the trade between 1787 and 1804. In the four years between its legalization of the trade trade and 1808, South Carolina imported 40,000 slaves. The 200 ships that brought them brought them into Charleston Harbor. According to the US Census, SC’s slave population went from 146,151 in 1800 to 196,365 in 1810.

      As for nothing being done by Lincoln to end slavery in Northern states before or during the war, that is simply not true. As for prior to the beginning of the war, what could Lincoln have done? He wasn’t president until March 4, 1861. Fts. Sumter and Pickens were already besieged. He spend much of 1862 trying to get loyal slaves states to abolish slavery voluntarily, with Congressional financial assistance. He called for what became the 13th Amendment while the war was still raging. Congress passed it and the ratification process began on January 31, 1865. It was not legally necessary for Lincoln to sign it but he did to show his support. The Battle of Bentonville was fought in March.

      Finally, as the US Supreme Court held in the Prize cases in 1863, a nation cannot declare war on itself and does not do so by taking action to suppress a rebellion in a state or states.

  • Bob Huddleston Jun 7, 2011

    Yep. Just like those wicked Columbians/Mexicans/Afghans, who ever, make us use their cocaine.

    BTW, it is also important to remember that the English dominated the slave trade and the English also led the way to destroy not only the Trade but also slavery itself. Different English to be sure: those in the Trade fought the abolition tooth and nail and lobbing Parliament heavily with all sorts of arguments about why the trade was necessary for the English merchant marine and why slavery was a good thing for the Empire.

    As Garrison was the voice of American abolition, William Wilberforce was the voice of English abolition. Neither he nor any member of his family had anything to do with the slave trade. It was Wilberforce as an MP who led Parliament to outlaw the Trade and it was Wilberforce and his associates who achieved peaceful emancipation on August 1, 1833. It was the British who dominated the slave trade – and it was British that ended it, at a terrible cost of lives of officers and seamen of the Royal Navy.

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