Charlotte’s Confederate Flag Problem

Popular media really does have a great deal of influence over how we frame our public discourse about Civil War memory.  We can see this most clearly in what I’ve dubbed the Continued War narrative, which assumes a nation divided along racial and/or regional lines.  Reporters love to utilize this narrative when discussing controversies over how we discuss the tough questions of race and slavery and especially the public display of the Confederate flag in the South.  This story out of Charlotte is a perfect example.

As everyone knows Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention in September.  The city has a need to demonstrate to the rest of the country that it is not mired in the controversies of the past, but “remnants of the Old South linger in our region – and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.”  Really?  How do we know this?  Just ask a couple of guys who still fly the flag.

“Heritage,” Barrett said when I asked why he flies the Confederate battle flag.  “Heritage,” said Kevin Wooten in nearby Gaston County, who had a Confederate flag in his yard mounted in the back of a broken-down pickup truck. Up front, an American flag flew from out of the hood where the radio antenna used to go.  “It’s nothing about no hate against anyone,” said Wooten, 55, a mechanic by trade who enjoys wrestling and drag racing. “I have black friends I care about more than some of my white friends. But … .”  There’s often a “but” when you talk about the flag.  “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too,” Wooten said. “My great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army down this way. I know a lot of people don’t like the flag, but I don’t see that as a problem.”

Of course, the reporter can’t let them get away with such a distorted view so she interviews a local history professor:

David Goldfield, a historian at UNC Charlotte, believes it’s fine to embrace your ancestors. But Goldfield, who wrote “Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History,” suggests it’s time people brought the Confederate flag indoors.  “It offends a lot of people,” he said. “I tell them, ‘If I were in your position, I might have the Confederate battle flag in my house, but not necessarily fly it out in front of my house if it offended my neighbor.’ It’s just a matter of civility. It’s not a question of who’s right or who’s wrong.”  The fact that after 12 years the NAACP is still boycotting South Carolina because it flies the Confederate flag on the State House grounds is as clear an indication as any that the flag remains divisive. Hate groups use it as a symbol. Even back when the flag was first adopted, Goldfield said, it was closely allied to white supremacy.  “There’s no debate among historians today that slavery caused the Civil War,” Goldfield said, “and that the banner Confederate troops carried into battle was supporting a nation that predicated itself on the protection and extension of slavery.”

The reporter concludes by reassuring us that the views expressed by Barrett and Wooten are not her own and suggests to her fellow southerners that it is time “we put it [Confederate flag] away.”  What we never learn, however, is how prevalent the Confederate flag is in the Charlotte area.  Does it even merit this story?  One wonders how this reporter even found Barrett and Wooten.  I can imagine her asking a colleague or friend how she might go about finding a couple of guys in the area who still fly the flag. This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.

The people of Charlotte can rest easy that the DNC is not going to be an opportunity for the rest of the nation to count Confederate flags.

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52 thoughts on “Charlotte’s Confederate Flag Problem

  1. Greg Fannin

    It’s pretty clear that most historians do little original research or thinking and only parrot what they’ve heard and read. The southern states seceded, leading to the War (not a ‘civil war’ by the typical person’s definition). At that time, both the North and South had slaves (peruse the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules to verify this). It’s disingenuous to say that slavery was the cause of the War. So, the Northern armies passed right by New Jersey, which had slaves (Oops! Sorry! ‘permanent apprentices’) and Washington, DC (who called their slaves with the curious name ‘slaves’) and invaded the Southern states because they had slaves? In what universe does this make sense? Only in a Yankee-indoctrinated one. Any true scholar knows it was secession.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for adding your understanding to an incredibly rich body of scholarship that apparently you know very little about. It is true that New Jersey contained slaves, but these were the results of the state’s policy of gradual abolition. Other northern states prevented blacks from legally living within their boundaries. Other than that your explanation of slavery’s crucial role in the coming of secession and war is overly simplistic. My suggestion is to begin with Charles Dew’s very short book, Apostles of Disunion. Thanks again for the comment.

      Reply
      1. Greg Fannin

        Well, as long as their slaves were due to their policy of gradual abolition, then, morally, that must be OK. So, gradual abolition was the proper course for the North, but obviously wouldn’t work for the South.

        You’re right about the simplicity of the War … simply about secession. Your president at the time said as much. It only gets complex when you ignore the simple right in front of you.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Well, as long as their slaves were due to their policy of gradual abolition, then, morally, that must be OK.

          I wasn’t making a moral point; rather, I was trying to fill in some of the gaps in your comment. No, it did not work for the Southern states in the years after the Revolution, but debates about the future of slavery did take place, especially in Virginia. You can find examples of slaveholders manumitting their slaves as well. The one that stands out is Richard Randolph, who freed hundreds of his slaves and eventually led to one of the few free black communities in Virginia. As we all know, that window was closed as new Southern states entered the Union and the economy became even more dependent on slave labor.

          You can check out Melvin P. Ely’s book, Israel on the Appomattox for more on Randolph.

          Reply
        2. Andy Hall

          Eighteen slaves, Greg. New Jersey had eighteen slaves in the entire state in the Census of 1860. I think the cast of Jersey Shore is bigger than that.

          And no, Lincoln wasn’t “Kevin’s president,” anymore than Jefferson Davis was yours, or mine. Such blustery, faux-Confederate posturing does little to enhance your credibility.

          Reply
          1. Greg Fannin

            Oh, well, if it was only eighteen slaves, surely that gives New Jersey the right to go to war over slavery! Since the North had a lot fewer slaves, or ‘permanent apprentices’ in New Jersey, clearly morality is on their side.

            Reply
            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              It is important to draw a distinction between the cause of the war, why the United States chose to forcefully bring the southern states back, and why northerners initially rushed to volunteer. That you choose to view this as part of some morality play says very little about your understanding of the complexity of the history.

              In a previous comment you were quick to impugn the work of historians, but you fail to cite one scholarly source to support your overly narrow and confusing interpretation.

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            2. Andy Hall

              Sorry, Greg, but I’ve seen the false equivalency argument that “there were slave in the North, too” a few too many times to be fooled by that bit of disengenuous smoke-and-mirrors. There were slaves in a few Northern states, and the practice had been widespread in the North a few generations before. But by 1860, the practice of chattel bondage was a distinctly (if not absolutely uniquely) Southern phenomenon, and the actual number of slaves outside of what would become the Confederacy and the border states was very small. One need only to read the writings of the fire-eaters and Southern pols at the time to understand that they saw the “peculiar institution” to be the defining, common cause and shared interest in adopting the drastic move of secession. The Deep South states that led the others out of the Union (and I include my own state in this group) were very explicit in defining themselves as slaveholding states to contrast themselves with the rest of the Union, that they saw as threatening their common interest. That’s what they themselves said, over and over again, and I think we should take them at their word.

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                Greg,

                One of the reasons that I referenced Charles Dew’s short book is because when it came time for the Deep Southern states to convince their reluctant neighbors in the Upper South that secession was necessary they referenced their common bond of slavery in contrast with the non-slaveholding North. The fear was that Lincoln’s election spelled doom for their “peculiar institution.” I agree with Andy. Let’s take them at their word.

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              2. Greg Fannin

                ‘False equivalency’! Northern slavery does not equal Southern slavery. That’s a good one .. and original! The North always has some ‘interesting’ defence for their slavery.

                So what makes it false? We’re talking slavery, not slaves. I’m not arguing that there were more in the North than the South. One slave or thousand slaves is still slavery. The truth is the North’s slavery heyday had past by the mid-1800s. Once there were sufficient workers in the North, it was no longer necessary. The South had not reached that point, so, yes, to develop the South, slaves were needed, just as they were years before in the North. Cheap, abundant labor, not moral indignation, ended slavery in the North. When cheap, abundant labor became available to the South, it would have ended there, too. The North was too concerned about losing their cash cow to let New Jersey-style ‘gradual abolition’ to take place.

                Reply
                1. Michael Douglas

                  You say that once the northern states had a sufficient pool of white workers slavery was no longer “necessary.” You say that the same would have occurred in the southern states eventually. How does that square with the desire of southern slaveholding interests to expand slavery into the territories? If slavery was merely a necessary evil, of use only to help the aforementioned states get, metaphorically, on their feet, why would they have wanted to spread themselves even more thinly into the territories before consolidating gains at home? The intent was to spread and expand slavery, not use it as a stop gap

                  The fact of the matter is that the slaveholders had no will, desire or impetus to end slavery, eventually or otherwise.

                  You apologists need a new playbook. The “North had slaves too” line only works on the ignorant (willful or otherwise). No one denies slavery in the north. No one denies that the north benefited from slavery. No one believes the northern states were packed with abolitionists. No one believes that Lincoln fought the Civil War to free the slaves (well, actually, according to some reading I’ve been doing, many of the slaves believed that — but that’s another story). No one believes that the north was just as racist in many ways as the south.

                  I know it’s all the apologists have in their attempt to focus attention somewhere other than on the historical truths about the Confederacy. But no one believes any of that crap that Confederate apologists try to tell the rest of us (northerners and southerners and all the rest) that we believe. These things exist only in the perceptions of the uneducated and in the fevered paranoia of the apologists. It’s painful and pathetic to watch.

                  Reply
                  1. Andy Hall

                    I’m more concerned with Greg’s assertion that the difference between the North and the South in the 1860s was that slavery was “needed” in the latter, but not the former. That’s very much the same argument people like DeBow and Wigfall were making at the time, and that’s really not the sort of folks I’d want to be aligning myself with today.

                    Reply
                    1. Kevin Levin Post author

                      Greg’s problem is that he can’t extract himself from the event in question. He is still fighting the Civil War.

                    2. Greg Fannin

                      In reply to Kevin, in my first post, I’m pretty sure I deny that a ‘civil war’ ever took place in this land. Now, I’m accused of still fighting it?

                    3. Michael Douglas

                      Come now, Greg; your pretense of unfamiliarity with the several definitions of the term “civil” really *is* being disingenuous. Despite the various titles that people choose to apply to the conflict, it really was a civil war in the strictest sense of that definition.

                    4. Greg Fannin

                      Since there were slaveholders on both sides, I could see one using ‘The Slaveholders War’. Since Irish fought for both sides, we could it the ‘Potatolovers War’, but this wouldn’t be particularly relevant to the War either.

                  2. Michael Douglas

                    Apologies. Unfortunately I can’t edit the comment, above, but it was supposed to read, “No one believes that the north was *not* just as racist. . .”

                    Reply
                    1. Woodrowfan

                      “He is still fighting the Civil War.”

                      Kevin, I believe you mean “The War of Northern Aggression” or, if you prefer, “The Late Unpleasantness”… ;)

                    2. Michael Douglas

                      I prefer War of the Rebellion or the Slaveholders’ War but, hey, to each his or her own. ;)

                    3. Greg Fannin

                      Woodrow fan, I’d prefer The War For Southern Independence. I won’t object to The War Of Northern Aggression, I just don’t prefer it.

                  3. Sydney Mitchell

                    Not to wade into the other points of this discussion but your comment “How does that square with the desire of southern slaveholding interests to expand slavery into the territories?” does raise a question I’ve always wondered about:

                    Assuming everything was driven by the dispute over expanding slavery into the territories, wouldn’t the act of secession in itself drastically alter the question of territorial expansion?

                    In other words, would it be fair to say that South Carolina basically told the North “Fine! If you won’t let us expand slavery to the western territories, you can keep them and we’ll be on our merry way!” when it dropped the secession hammer in December 1860? After all, it would be exceedingly hard for a state to secede on its own then attempt to assert some sort of legal claim to the territories owned by the neighboring country it formerly belonged to and just left on its own volition. And it’d be damn near impossible to enforce it, even if they wanted to. So with all this business about the territories being the root of it all, what exactly did South Carolina hope to accomplish on the territorial question through an action that was also a de facto relinquishing of any claim they conceivably had to them?

                    Reply
                    1. Andy Hall

                      After all, it would be exceedingly hard for a state to secede on its own then attempt to assert some sort of legal claim to the territories owned by the neighboring country it formerly belonged to and just left on its own volition.

                      You would think so, but one of the first things Confederates did in what came to be known as the Trans-Mississippi was to march off on a (wholly inept) campaign to seize New Mexico and much of the American Southwest, counting on the withdrawal of the regular U.S. Army from the frontier to make that happen.

                    2. Sydney Mitchell

                      A disorganized attempt by a few thousand men to seize a sparsely populated and generally confederate-sympathizing stretch of New Mexico below the 34th parallel hardly constitutes a campaign to seize “much of the American Southwest.” But it does illustrate my point that any westward expansion by the CSA would be nearly impossible to enforce under any circumstances – and certainly so if there wasn’t a war in the east draining the US troops from the frontier.

                      Back to my original question though – wouldn’t the act of secession all but completely remove any southern claims to expanding slavery in the western territories?

                      If the territories were the main Republican sticking point as is so often claimed, and if simply cutting off slavery from the territories was enough to “contain” it and put it on the road to extinction where it already existed as is also frequently claimed, then why not welcome the fact that the secessionists effectively gave up their western stake in the act of seceding? Why choose war instead?

                      By the way – I’m genuinely interested in hearing any theories on how the old territories argument still applied after secession. But these are questions that need to be asked if contested western lands were indeed the main source of the rub over slavery.

                  4. Greg Fannin

                    Let’s see … why would the Southern states want slavery to expand to new territories? Hmmm … that IS a tough one to answer! Oh, wait! Isn’t the representative style of the federal (‘national’) government based upon a state model? Each state sends representatives to each House of Congress? If there were no more slave states added, it’s not hard to see that sooner or later (and probably sooner), the South would be greatly outnumbered in representation and their right to own slaves would be overturned. Yes, the founding fathers gave the states wide latitude to determine what was legal and what was not within their borders. Like it or not, at one time or another, slavery was legal in many of the first states. 

                    Michael, we both agree on many things.

                    Slavery existed under the U.S.A.’s flag much longer than it did under the C.S.A.’s flag, yet somehow the Confederates’ flags are viewed as representing slavery. What flag did the slave ships fly? Actually, many, but the Northern fleet played a major role. The Southern fleet? The South didn’t really have much of an ocean-going fleet. I’m not aware of any Southern slave ships, but there may have been a few, but if we’re arguing degrees, then the North was much worse in this regard.

                    So, the North’s ships brought slaves into this country. The North used this slave labor to build its major industrial cities, then a better model presented itself … paid labor … and slavery in the North died a natural death. While this was occurring, the North was selling slaves to the South. The South was not nearly as industrialised and needed slavery longer.

                    What am I denying? The South had slaves. Slavery was allowed to die a natural death in the North (New Jersey’s ‘gradual abolition’, anyone?). The South felt they were being denied this same opportunity and exercised their right to secession. The North, upset over losing their cash cow, invaded the South. The North, afraid that the Europeans were considering assisting the South, successfully reframed the issue to pretend it was all about slavery. Because of this, Europe backed away. The South lost and has remained occupied territory ever since. The North finally passed the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery in this region of the world (months after the war was over). Of course, Northerners will object to this because they haven’t yet come to grips with the sins of their past. They despise the Confederate flags because they cause people to ask questions. When these people look for answers, the North is ashamed of what is found, because they are at least as guilty as the South. I try not to judge Northern apologists too harshly (I’m not always successful, but I try to remain ‘civil’ … pun not necessarily intended). I’d be ashamed of the North’s hypocrisy as well.

                    I have a dream, that Southerns will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their flag but by the content of their character.

                    Reply
                    1. Kevin Levin Post author

                      I have a dream, that Southerns will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their flag but by the content of their character.

                      This is silly. To suggest that the Confederate flag somehow represents the majority or even a significant minority of Southerners is a joke. And I guess you at least mean white Southerners.

                    2. Kevin Levin Post author

                      You made a claim that implies that a significant number of Southerners embrace the Confederate flag and I am simply pointing out that this is not the case.

                    3. Greg Fannin

                      When did I claim that? I said Southerners would NOT be judged by their flag. I didn’t mention what flag they should not be judged by. It was you who interjected the Confederate flag. But since you mentioned it …

                      Now, what do you consider a ‘Southerner’? We’re all entitled to our own definition of ‘Southerner’. By my definition, ‘Southerner’ is more of a state of mind than a state of birth or state of residence. Being born in the South does not automatically make one a ‘Southerner’ any more than living in a garage makes one a car. Living in The South does not necessarily make one a ‘Southerner’. Could someone raised in New Jersey and living in Boston be a ‘Southerner’? Not likely, but certainly possible. The good news? No one is permanently, inexorably locked into a category. 

                      By my definition, every ‘Southerner’ embraces the Confederate flag. I suspect your definition is different. I also suspect the majority of people LIVING in the South do not embrace the Confederate flags. The following example may help illustrate my point: Anwar al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico and was a U.S. citizen. Would you consider him an American? You may or may not, but many would say even though he was born in the U.S. and was a U.S. citizen, that alone will not make you an American. He has (had) the wrong state of mind.

                    4. Kevin Levin Post author

                      My bad. It’s been a long day.

                      I don’t really have a need to define a Southerner. Whatever definition floats your boat is fine with me.

                    5. Michael Rodgers

                      Kevin, The dude threadjacked, insulted, and diatribed. And, worst of all, he had no point to make. Next time use the banhammer.

                    6. Michael Douglas

                      You may not care what color their skin is, but a great many of your philosophical colleagues do. Even in that context it is quite apparent that not all southerners are of like mind. Philosophical differences as a result of upbringing and genetic/ethnic heritage aside, there are some among your southern nationalist brethren who could give a rat’s nether regions. But there are many for whom it means a lot more than is healthy for any individual laying claim to being truly human, in my opinion.

                      Not to be vulgar, perverse or punny, but let’s call a spade a spade. When speaking of a southern “nation,” the greater percentage of those indulging in this desire envision a land where whites reign supreme and people of color (especially blacks) know their place. . .just like in the old days of the erstwhile, and thankfully destroyed, Confederacy.

                    7. Greg Fannin

                      Michael, I’m curious who you think are my ‘philosophical colleagues’. You and I may have a different definition of ‘Southerner’. That’s a funny phrase ‘Know their place’ … I seem to recall a(n) (in)famous Northerner politician who claimed to ‘know their place’ … he wanted Blacks deported to Africa, Haiti, South America, anywhere but in the U.S. … I don’t recall his name, but it will come to me … pretty sure he was from Illinois.

                    8. Kevin Levin Post author

                      I seem to recall a(n) (in)famous Northerner politician who claimed to ‘know their place’ … he wanted Blacks deported to Africa, Haiti, South America, anywhere but in the U.S. … I don’t recall his name, but it will come to me … pretty sure he was from Illinois.

                      What does this have to do with anything? You seem to think that the little bit of history that you know is somehow a revelation to the people you are engaged in discussion with here.

                2. Andy Hall

                  No one’s defending the practice of chattel bondage, anywhere. But you were the one who suggested that we “peruse” the 1860 census, so you shouldn’t object to a closer look at the actual numbers and what they tell us. Because there really is a fundamental difference, and the prevalence and effect of the “peculiar institution” in different parts of the country is somewhat more complex than a simple yes/no checkbox.

                  Reply
                  1. Greg Fannin

                    I’m pretty sure I did recommend we ‘peruse’ the slave schedule. And it certainly appears you ARE defending chattel slavery, at least the North’s version of it. Slavery is slavery. I’m hoping you’re not suggesting the numbers are particularly relevant (although if I were trying to defend the North, I’d probably try to get away with that one … ‘our slavery wasn’t as bad as yours because ours wasn’t as big as yours’). Let’s look at percentages … and the only percentage that counts is this: every slave was 100% slave. Explain THAT fundamental difference to the slave … I’m sure they’ll be relieved. 

                    Reply
                3. Bryan Cheeseboro

                  “One slave or thousand slaves is still slavery. ”

                  True. But I can’t help but think this mentality is why some people see one Silas Chandler and then see 90,000 Black Confederates.

                  Reply
            3. Brooks D. Simpson

              Greg … is this all you’ve got? Seems to me this is an easy one. New Jersey didn’t secede to protect slavery. Seven southern states did. Several more awaited the course of events. Northerners went to war to preserve the Union, and eventually agreed that to win the war and preserve the Union, the United States would strike at slavery.

              Saying that the ultimate cause of the Civil War was (as Lincoln put it in 1865) “somehow” slavery is not the same thing as saying the North went to war to free the slaves. No historian says the latter, and for you to pretend otherwise is disingenuous (unless you are remarkably ignorant of the very literature you presume to criticize).

              Reply
                1. Greg Fannin

                  I don’t think that needs to be said. Virtually every white person in North America circa 1860 was a racist. Yes, even the abolitionists. Were blacks in the North afforded full membership into society? No.

                  Sorry ’bout the keyboard, Michael.

                  Reply
                  1. Kevin Levin Post author

                    No one disputes this point. By our standards even many of the abolitionists were racists. Again, no one disputes this.

                    Reply
  2. Dan Wright

    It’s also clear that most reporters fail to follow up when the person interviewed plays the “heritage” card. Of what does that heritage consist? Does the heritage Barrett and Wooten are so proud of begin and end with the Civil War? This story has been repeated time after time and reporters stop when confronted with heritage. It’s a lazy media.

    Reply
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  4. Johnny R.

    The civil war had many causes and reasons behind it, but the biggest being import taxes. While the north heavily taxed the imports on products in which they also produced, they did not tax European goods that the southern states produced. So no matter what crap modern history books try to tell you, this is the main reason. They tell you slavery to grow a un needed hate against their enemy.

    Reply

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