Take It Down!

Mississippi_Capitol_Flag_AP_MI48

Mississippi State Flag

Last night I returned from an incredible 5-day trip through the civil rights South with a wonderful group of students. Among other things, we sat together in the Ebeneezer Baptist Church, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, visited Sun Records and got a sneak peak at the new exhibit at the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which opens to the public next month. We met with civil rights activists such as lawyer Fred Gray, Selma marcher, Joann Bland, and Freedom Rider Charles Person.

Our trip focused not just on history, but on current racial inequities throughout our country. While visiting with lawyers at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery we discussed the prosecution of minors as adults and the fact that many of these kids are African American. While in Jackson, Mississippi we met with the district attorney of Hinds County, where we discussed the incarceration of children as minors from the perspective of a prosecuting attorney. We met in a courtroom. Once again, our discussion returned to racial inequities in the system.

The students asked some incredibly thoughtful questions, but all I could do was stare at the judge’s bench with “Justice” engraved on the front and the Mississippi state flag with its Saint Andrew’s Cross. The day before I led students in a discussion about the Confederate soldiers’ monument next to the Alabama State House with no problem at all. I’ve seen the flag in all kinds of settings, but I’ve tended to respond to specific controversies on an intellectual level. Sitting in that courtroom on Wednesday, however, left me feeling enraged. Having met and talked with so many American heroes, who sacrificed so much to improve this nation and then to see that reminder of hatred was simply too much. How can anyone believe that justice is being served in a courtroom that includes that symbol given its history? It has no place in a court of law.

There, I said it.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

33 comments… add one

  • Al Mackey Mar 28, 2014

    There’s a lot here in this short post, Kevin. I’m wondering what the DA had to say. Whether justice can be served or not can be answered by results. Is Mississippi being fair in its sentencing? is the question that needs to be answered, and we can’t answer it simply by looking at numbers of African-Americans vs. Caucasians who are given sentences. We have to look at the contexts of those individual cases. You and I, I am sure, agree that African-Americans are no more naturally disposed to criminal or violent behavior than Caucasians, so some other factors must explain the rates. I accept that racism among law enforcement can be one factor, but what about home circumstances? Is the fault in the court or is the fault prior to the individual getting to court? I’m not trying to blame victims. If we focus on the person’s life up to the commission of the crime, what factors led to that criminal behavior? What leads to single-parent households, poverty, gang activity in the area, and lack of opportunity? Is that the fault of the court or does the blame lie elsewhere. I don’t deny there may be racism in the justice system, but it seems to me the root cause of the problem most probably lies elsewhere. We need someone to do an in-depth study looking at the context surrounding each case and determine whether or not the sentencing was done fairly if we’re going to answer the question of whether or not justice can be had in a courtroom that contains the current Mississippi state flag.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2014

      Interestingly, the DA is African American. He definitely offered a different perspective on the issue compared with EJI. He expressed some concern about the system and clearly stood behind his own prosecution of minors. Students were more concerned about the policy of charging minors as young as 13 as adults. One student asked whether these individuals ought to have full rights as adults if they are going to be prosecuted as such. Regardless of race, it is absurd to charge children as adults. Everything we know about the development of the brain and the circumstances of many of these kids argues against it.

      We need someone to do an in-depth study looking at the context surrounding each case and determine whether or not the sentencing was done fairly if we’re going to answer the question of whether or not justice can be had in a courtroom that contains the current Mississippi state flag.

      I am not necessarily assuming a direct connection between the presence of that flag and individual cases involving African Americans. What I am suggesting is that it is and always has been a symbol of racial suppression in Mississippi and elsewhere.

  • Brendan Bossard Mar 28, 2014

    I agree with you on a philosophical level, Kevin: no court of law should have a symbol of injustice in it. The problem is that it is the state flag. If I were the chief judge (or whatever you call the head honcho in the courthouse) I would want to remove the symbol, but would not because I would be acting out of bounds, in my opinion. The legislature (or the people in a referendum) need to change the flag. I don’t know when that will happen, seeing as how a new design was soundly defeated in 2001.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2014

      I completely agree with you that the legislature (or through a referendum) ought to be the way this decision should be handled.

  • Meg Thompson Mar 28, 2014

    One of the things I just hate about being a Civil War historian is the necessity to be fair and balanced when things are plainly NOT fair and balanced. So often I have been reading (lately) things like the editorials of William Yancey & Barnwell Rhett, and I just get so emotional. Either I cry, or I walk around the block a few times.

    It is just hate speech, pure and simple. Those flags have got to go.

    • Forester Jun 1, 2014

      I go for walks also when I read discomforting stuff. I thought I was the only one who did that …..

  • Milton Mar 28, 2014

    I couldn’t agree more Kevin. All visible symbols of slavery need to go; they are a foul stain on our national identity. In like manner, as I am sure you will agree, the Jefferson memorial has to go. Jefferson, who owned over 600 human beings during the course of his life, was a particularly cruel slave-master, going so far as to separate families and sexually abusing his underage female slaves. When I see that monstrous memorial, all I can think of is the sadistic human rights abuses Jefferson inflicted on his helpless slaves. Then I think that it is located in our nation’s Capitol, which is named for another cruel salve-master. The city needs to be re-named, and the Washington monument needs to be torn down as well. Our constitution should be shredded and re-written also. In principal author, the man revered as “The Father of our Constitution”, was another slave-owner. WE do agree, though, these hateful symbols of slavery nned to go.

    PS-Brown University too. It was funded with profits from a slave-trafficker.

    • Michael Rodgers Mar 28, 2014

      It’s Parker Thad Austin Caldwell etc. Way to miss the point and be a jerk about it too! Awesome.

  • Milton Mar 28, 2014

    Kevin, I neglected to ask you how the African-American students in your group respond to the presence of the flag? Were they visibly upset? Did they offer any commentary you might share with us? Did any of your African-American students vocalize their feelings in the presence of the DA?

  • Sinclair Barton Mar 28, 2014

    I think Milton makes a very interesting point. Is it only symbols of slavery that are connected to the Confederacy that are deemed offensive, or are all symbols of slavery equally repugnant? Is it not offensive and repugnant that Jefferson did, in fact, repeatedly sexually abuse his female slaves? Is it not offensive and repugnant that Washington did, in fact, beat his slaves? Is it not offensive and repugnant that both Washington and Jefferson tore apart families by selling off slaves?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2014

      The Confederate flag was placed atop a number of state houses throughout the South in the 1950s. The message was crystal clear. This comparison with Jefferson and Washington is silly. We are talking about how a symbol was used by state governments to resist civil rights.

      • Michael Rodgers Mar 28, 2014

        Sinclair Barton is Milton is Austin is Caldwell is Elaine something etc.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2014

          I know. Thanks.

        • Brooks D, Simpson Mar 29, 2014

          It’s a very good thing that these multiple screen names from the same IP agree with each other.

  • Sam Vanderburg Mar 28, 2014

    Personally, I think it an issue with Mississippi itself. It is their problem, not one we should step in with interference. Yes, we should express our opinion about what is right. It is one that needs settled by Mississippi. If I am not mistaken, the black population is about 37% versus the white of 58%. It is an issue in which there are numerical strength to effectively bring the issue to the forefront without out of state interference. My own thoughts are that it is not appropriate to simply hang that symbol over the heads of the race which was the majority of those enslaved in colonial and pre-civil war periods. However, I do understand that the symbol does go beyond the issue of slavery. You may say it was a society carried on the backs of slavery, but there was more than that. Although the Civil War solved the issue of legal slavery, it did make the federal system overwhelmingly strong over the local and state government.

    The problem with crime within the black community seems to be one of the lack of a solid value system. You may think I am a bit crazy for this statement, but the black community lost the value of the family when Johnson enacted his “Great Society.” The black father disappeared from many families and a dependence upon the government for monetary support was developed which now seems impossible to break. The result – the black communities are in serious trouble with many of their young men involved in illegal activities which place them in the sights of the justice system. But the problem within the black community is not confined to them alone. It is growing. We need to experience one of those Great Awakenings such as preceded the American Revolution and then later strengthened the emancipation movement in America.

    Enjoying life in Texas,
    Sam Vanderburg

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2014

      Personally, I think it an issue with Mississippi itself. It is their problem, not one we should step in with interference.

      I never suggested otherwise.

      The problem with crime within the black community seems to be one of the lack of a solid value system. You may think I am a bit crazy for this statement, but the black community lost the value of the family when Johnson enacted his “Great Society.”

      This seems rather simplistic as an explanation.

      • Sam Vanderburg Mar 29, 2014

        Simplistic or not – I have yet to see a better one and I have looked. Now the answer is not very simple to handling the problem, however. Moral demise seems to always preclude the demise of a culture.

        Sam Vanderburg

        • Michael Rodgers Mar 30, 2014

          Sam,
          I take it that you’re asking for more places to look, and so I suggest Ta-Nehisi Coates (theatlantic) as well as Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof (nytimes).
          Regards,
          Mike

          • Mary Burgher Mar 30, 2014

            Yes, indeed, many of Coates’ most recent posts address this subject directly and provide immense food for thought. He’s also a superlative writer.

  • Neil Hamilton Mar 28, 2014

    Milton,

    “They did it too?” Is that really the defense you wish to use to justify others actions?

    Sincerely,
    Neil Hamilton

  • Jeff Howell Mar 29, 2014

    Mississippi included the Confederate flag in its official state flag in 1894, the period when the Jim Crow era was set in concrete. Heritage? Hardly. The inclusion stood as a clear statement of the permanence of white supremacy. I voted for the flag change in 2001, but I knew it was a lost cause, pun intended! Mississippi politicians do not have the political will to change it, unlike the politicians in Georgia. I live in Georgia now. The flag will always plague Mississippi. The state will always reek of backwardness until it takes this first step.

  • Sinclair Barton Mar 29, 2014

    False, Michael Rodgers. I am not, well, all those names you listed. And Neil, “they did it too?” Are you really trying to excuse slavery and slave-trafficking by trying to obfuscate the horrors of those practicing by saying “they did it too”? That, in fact, make you guilty of “they did it too”,which is precisely what you criticize.

    PS- Kevin, whoever you think Milton is, he asks a very poignant question. Here you have enthusiastically discussed this trip for some time now, and placed great emphasis on the wonderful experience it would be for your students. Yet on the most profound issue you raised, you still have not shared with everyone the unique experiences and reactions of the African-American students in your group. Were they as enraged by the presence of the St. Andrews Cross as you were? Perhaps you could invite one or two of your African-American students to share their perspective with us on your blog. I think we could all learn a great deal.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2014

      Yet on the most profound issue you raised, you still have not shared with everyone the unique experiences and reactions of the African-American students in your group.

      First, I was not speaking for any of my students. I was speaking for myself. There were no African-American students on this trip. In fact, we have very few African Americans in our school since it is a Jewish Academy. I do not understand why you continue to harp on this issue.

    • Michael Rodgers Mar 29, 2014

      I apologize. Have a nice day, Sinclair Barton.

  • Sinclair Barton Mar 29, 2014

    I am not harping at all. I asked, once and once only, for you to share with us the experiences of the African-American students. And I most certainly did not know that your school is segregated. In fact, I assumed that in the year 2014, that that was not possible.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2014

      I would suggest looking up the word segregated. Thanks for the laugh.

  • Carl Tommy Miller Mar 29, 2014

    Comparisons of the Confederate Flag to the Swastika are Ignorant and Highly Offensive
    By Lewis Regenstein

    Dear CNS News:

    Julian Bond’s comparison of the Confederate flag or symbol to the swastika is highly offensive, especially to those of us who are Jewish, and shows he knows little about either the Confederacy or the Nazis.

    Some 3,500 to 5,000 Jews fought honorably and loyally for the Confederacy, including its Secretary of War and later State, Judah Benjamin. My great grandfather also served, as did his four brothers, their uncle, his three sons, and some two dozen other members of my Mother’s extended family (the Moses’ of South Carolina and Georgia). Half a dozen of them fell in battle, largely teenagers, including the first and last Confederate Jews to die in battle.

    We know first hand, from their letters, diaries, and memoirs, that they were not fighting for slavery or bigotry, but rather to defend themselves and their comrades, their families, homes, and country from an invading army that was trying to kill them, burn their homes and cities, and destroy everything they had.

    It was a Union General, Ulysses S. Grant, who issued the infamous General Order # 11 expelling all Jews “as a class” from his conquered territories. It was this same Union Army (led by many of the same Civil War generals) that engaged in virtual genocide against the Native Americans in what we euphemistically call “the Indian Wars,” often massacring harmless, defenseless old men, women, and children in their villages.

    It was not the South but rather our enemies that engaged in genocide. While our ancestors may have lost the War, they never lost their honor, or engaged in anything that could justify their being compared to Nazis. It was the other side that did that.

    Sincerely yours,
    Lewis Regenstein
    Atlanta, Georgia

    • Ryan Q. Mar 29, 2014

      I always find it ironic that Heritage not Hate folks are quick to point fingers at the U.S. army for its Indian campaigns in the post-war period. Yet what about the antebellum Indian campaigns, in which a majority of Southern officers took part? Do those not count? Does the 2nd US Cavalry, which included the likes of Robert E. Lee, get a free pass for their roles in Texas? What about the Seminole Wars, which obliterated the Indian populaces in Florida?

    • Jerry McKenzie Mar 31, 2014

      To clarify the General Order #11 reference:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Order_No._11_(1862)

  • Michael Rodgers Mar 29, 2014

    Kevin,
    Your post is great, and it sounds like the trip was very worthwhile.
    Best,
    Mike

  • Marian Latimer Mar 29, 2014

    I spent most of my life in a rural area of Michigan. Most of the minorities when I was younger were migrant workers who came in from Texas. However, the next county over there was a vacation area that had been strictly a black settlement because the white investor had been denied a liquor license and back in the day he sold or leased the properties to Detroit area black families to get even. I don’t think anyone in the area ever thought anything about it on either side of the fence once things settled out, but I did see Confederate flags in the proverbial pickup truck now and again as well as on the front license plate. I’m not sure if this was a holdover of the families who came north to work in the auto plants (as did some of my father’s relatives) or what. The intent, though, was clear. It was meant to intimidate and that was that.

    I don’t know if it’s a stretch or not to link this to the folks who were in the Michigan Militia and their ilk, some of whom were slightly sympathetic with the Nichols brothers, one of whom is in prison for the OKC bombing. I used to drive by the Nichols farm everyday on the way to work when I didn’t have a carpooler and the things I heard after the bombing made my blood run cold. Some of these charming folks were the same ones with the Confederate flags in their trucks. They weren’t all young kids. The culture that is behind it isn’t going away anytime soon and that is really sad.

  • Scott Apr 27, 2014

    “Having met and talked with so many American heroes, who sacrificed so much to improve this nation and then to see that reminder of hatred was simply too much. How can anyone believe that justice is being served in a courtroom that includes that symbol given its history?”

    I find it disappointing that with all the atrocities committed under the different versions of our nations flag, you focus primarily on the Confederate flag. How can a historian not feel the same outrage about other periods of our history?
    Obviously it is your blog and run it as you see fit. I personally prefer history given by a source that is capable of presenting the events while maintaining an unbiased approach. Both sides of the Civil War had it’s heroes and villains, with terrible atrocities committed by both. You are also very well aware the Civil War was not about “just slavery” that appears to be echoed across our classrooms today (even the approved history books after the Civil War stated that the war was about slave expansion, balance of power, and what powers the states actually had versus the authority of the Federal government concerning secession. No mention of how the war was about the North coming to free an enslaved race, simply because it didn’t happen that way). You seem to avoid any mentions of the racial hatred by the North, how many felt the war was about maintaining the Union but were firmly against emancipation. I wonder if your new book will mention how the Northern army used slave labor even after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
    You are a talented man, I feel your potential is belittled by a lot of the encouragement of bashing people and organizations you disagree with.
    There are plenty of American heroes that take pride in Confederate history, the same ones who sacrificed tremendously to improve this nation, do you not think that you offend them when you call it the “symbol of hatred”?
    I looked over this blog and can’t help but feel you have quite the obsession in belittling anything Confederate and hoist the Union high upon your shoulders while keeping a blind eye to their actions.
    Do not take this as an attack, this is just simple observations, and it does have me curious about your motives and why you appear to be so biased in your presentation.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 28, 2014

      I find it disappointing that with all the atrocities committed under the different versions of our nations flag, you focus primarily on the Confederate flag. How can a historian not feel the same outrage about other periods of our history?

      This blog is not about American history in its entirety.

      You seem to avoid any mentions of the racial hatred by the North, how many felt the war was about maintaining the Union but were firmly against emancipation.

      You obviously have done a poor job reading through this blog’s archives.

      I looked over this blog and can’t help but feel you have quite the obsession in belittling anything Confederate and hoist the Union high upon your shoulders while keeping a blind eye to their actions.

      It is true that I am glad the Confederacy failed in its bid for independence.

Leave a Comment