Thousands of Americans are expected to crowd the streets of Columbia, South Carolina today to demand the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds. This is the 10th such rally in South Carolina. I published this post back in 2008, but thought it might be appropriate to highlight it once again.
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?