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?
I would be remiss not to acknowledge the passing of one of the more unapologetic racists of the 20th century.
“To rob the Negro of his reputation of thinking through a problem in his own fashion is about the same as trying to pretend that he doesn’t
have a natural instinct for rhythm and for singing and dancing.” — Helms responding in 1956 to criticism that a fictional black character
in his newspaper column was offensive.
“I’ve been portrayed as a caveman by some. That’s not true. I’m a conservative progressive, and that means I think all men are equal, be they slants, beaners or niggers.” According to Edge of the American West it looks like the evidence attributing this quote to Helms is insufficient.
–Jesse Helms, North Carolina Progressive, February 6, 1985, quoted in, “Yes, They Really Said It!”
“Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.” –Statement made to Orrin Hatch in reference to Carol Moseley-Braun
“You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” –Statement made in a 1990 TV commercial during a close campaign against black Democrat Harvey Gantt
“White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.” Helms reportedly helped write this TV commercial passage as an aide for North Carolina Republican candidate Willis Smith in 1950
The University of North Carolina was “the University of Negroes and Communists.” (Capital Times, 11/22/94) Black civil rights activists were “Communists and sex perverts.” (Copley News Service, 8/23/01)
Of civil rights protests Helms wrote, “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.” (WRAL-TV commentary, 1963) He also wrote, “Crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced.” (New York Times, 2/8/81)
On Monday longtime lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon (83) and Del Martin (87) were married in California. They have been partners for more than 50 years.
On a related note, the National Park Service at Hopewell Furnace will stage a re-enactment of the marriage between the interracial couple Miss Sally Hampton and Mr. Sol Stuart on Saturday, June 28. See the News Release below.