A Confederate Flag Unfurled and Furled Again in S.C.

Confederate Flag

Like many of you I have gone through the full range of emotions over the past few days in response to the shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, St. Paul, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas. The violence and multiple narratives that we have now grown use to hearing in response to these incidents fits easily into a long history of racial violence and misunderstanding. It’s easy to slide into the feeling of disillusionment, but at the risk of sounding cliche, I still believe that when it comes to this thorny issue, the moral arc bends in the direction of justice and increased understanding. I have to believe it.

It’s certainly not the best comparison, but this most recent round of racial violence took place on the eve of the one-year anniversary of South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds. Today, on this anniversary a group calling itself The South Carolina Secessionist Party held a rally to protest its removal. They brought their own pole and for a short period the battle flag once again flew at the state house for the benefit of around 150 people.

While the sight may have been encouraging for those who view this racist rag with pride, the rest of us should look at it as evidence of progress. This is the closest the Confederate battle flag will ever come to flying on this particular piece of ground. In fact, rallies could be held every day from here on out and it would still never come close to the time when it was the state itself that flew it. In fact, it is looking more and more like the only Confederate battle flags that will fly on public spaces throughout the country will be carried by private citizens.

I see it as a sign of strength that an organization advocating the break-up of this nation, along with a cast of racist speakers, has the right to practice their First Amendment rights.

The struggle continues, but we will get there.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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24 comments… add one
  • Douglas Egerton Jul 12, 2016 @ 8:20

    Dear Kevin, Thank you for your kind words regarding my forthcoming book. I’m flattered by your praise. And Matt, the black soldiers I wrote about–I focused on fourteen men who served in the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, Fifty-fifth, and Fifth Cavalry–were keenly aware of northern racism. The largest contingent of men in the Fifty-fifth came from Ohio, a state that refused to allow them to vote. One soldier returned home to Manhattan on leave to bury his daughter and was beaten by toughs for boarding a streetcar while in uniform.
    But they never lost sight of their goal, which was to end slavery, crush the Confederacy, and in some cases, liberate family members. William H. Carney Jr., who is depicted holding the American flag in the image on Kevin’s blog that so bothers you, was a Norfolk runaway who understood he ran the risk of being reenslaved if captured by Confederate forces. (He later won the Congressional medal of honor.) And while some white officers accepted command of USCT units in hopes of easy promotion (and a pay raise), the vast majority were good antislavery men, either Republicans, or in the case of George Garrison, who served in the Fifty-fifth, the sons of abolitionists. So no, the young colonel you dismiss as a “white master” did not fight in the Indian wars after Appomattox. The dying officer in that mural was Robert Gould Shaw, the son of abolitionists who survived Antietam and Grimball’s Landing only to take seven balls in the chest at the second battle of Battery Wagner. He was all of twenty-five when he gave his life for the United States and deserves, I think, a little respect.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2016 @ 8:45

      You are very welcome. I am hoping to write a review for The Daily Beast.

      As for the rest of your comment, well said. Thanks for taking the time to write.

    • Shoshana Bee Jul 12, 2016 @ 9:00

      Quote: “The dying officer in that mural was Robert Gould Shaw, the son of abolitionists who survived Antietam and Grimball’s Landing only to take seven balls in the chest at the second battle of Battery Wagner.”

      Up until 2 nights ago, I would not have had any idea of who/what you are referring to; however, I just viewed Glory for the first time (I know, I know: it is a movie) so that another door to a new subject has been opened. I appreciate your further comments on this topic, and I will look forward to the new book.

  • Forester Jul 11, 2016 @ 14:03

    The flag-raising protest was ill-timed, silly and in bad taste. That’s all I have to say.

  • Erick Hare Jul 11, 2016 @ 9:38

    I would like to point out that just as it was during the Civil War and Reconstruction the issues within race relations in our present day are also complex, and convoluted at times.

    Yes in the mid-19th century a large portion of the United States were racist. That however didn’t stop them from dealing with the issues of slavery and clarifying, to a limited degree, the concepts of Freedom and Liberty in the United States.

    In these most recent incidents of violence in our country I think many tend to generalize and jump to conclusions before knowing all the facts, for instance one of the incidents involving police this last week was a case in which the victim matched the description of an armed robbery suspect the police were looking for.

    Granted there are legitimate racial issues we need to deal with in this country, but we can’t let those issues blind us to other factors within the broader scope of society either, just as was the case in Reconstruction where reconciliation became the focal point to the detriment of racial equality and freedom in our country.

  • Joe Overstreet Jul 11, 2016 @ 9:20

    I have never thought of it this way before but, The honourable Confederate Battle Flag with it’s Cross of St. Andrew, which in no way a Racially charge symbol, Brings out the Hatred of uneducated and hate filled African Americans. They charge the flag is hateful and I charge the flag “Triggers” in those people the hate and racial decisiveness that consumes these people…..Joe

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2016 @ 9:50

      Even a cursory understanding of how it has been used over the past 150 years would convince you otherwise. You could start with John Coski’s excellent book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Symbol.

    • Andy Hall Jul 11, 2016 @ 10:15

      Nat Turner still rides in some folks’ fever dreams.

  • Michael Aubrecht Jul 11, 2016 @ 3:40

    You said “…encouraging for those who view this racist rag with pride.” Kevin, I think it may be too much to refer to such a historic flag as a “racist rag”. There has been forward momentum to see that the flag is properly displayed in the proper arena (with context) while maintaining respect for its place in our nation’s history.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2016 @ 4:13

      I can advocate for a proper museum display of the Confederate battle flag and at the same time call it for what it is.

  • msb Jul 11, 2016 @ 2:10

    “I have to believe it.”
    Me, too, Kevin. Keep up the good work.

  • bob carey Jul 11, 2016 @ 1:40

    Given the events of this past week, it is difficult to be optimistic about race relations in our country, however if you take the long view of history the country has progressed from chattel slavery to a black man in the White House. This progression seems agonizingly slow but it is progression nonetheless.
    Borrowing from Mr. Lincoln, I believe that the “better angels of our nature” will see us through the tragic events of the past week and the progression will continue. Perhaps one day we will realize true equality in all aspects of our society.

  • Toof Brown Jul 10, 2016 @ 19:04

    A reminder that the Mississippi state flag still incorporates the Confederate battle flag and likely will continue to for at least a while. It continues to prevent a lot of national groups from having activities and business in the state.

    The opposition to slavery that resulted in the 13th Amendment was a coalition of groups, some quite racist in general, but well aware of the political damage the continuation of slavery would have on the future of the country. This is how segregation and the Jim Crow economy eventually became sanctioned by the country as a whole. The term racist is simply too generic most of the time it is used. Most of the time it means white supremacist. People don’t want to use the term white supremacist to describe those who fetishize the Confederacy. Nevertheless, racism that views any difference by race is wholly different than white supremacy. Using “racist” when what they mean is “white supremacist” leads to many false comparisons of defensive arguments by the Confederacy fetishists, those who presume African-Americans as criminals, etc.

  • Patrick Jennings Jul 10, 2016 @ 16:24

    For the sake of clarity I wish people would use the correct words in this discussion. Racism and bigotry have the same traits, but are not the same thing. Bigots are people who hate others because because of an outward appearance (skin color, dress, accent). Racism is a near-nationalist feeling that one race is superior to another for what-ever reason. To confuse the two only causes more angst and anger.

    Those 150 people in SC were, most likely, bigots. The majority of white people of the entire US, in 1864, were likely racist. Malcolm X was a racist, Dylan Roof is a bigot. A racist tribe or nationcan learn from exposure and set their ideas aside, most bigots are unable to learn and hold tight to their hatred.

    The right word is critical at this time in our national conversation.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2016 @ 16:58

      Seems to me that there is a good deal of overlap between the two.

  • Andy Hall Jul 10, 2016 @ 16:01

    From the Charleston Post & Courier:

    “A hundred and fifty years ago, (angry) South Carolinians looked like men standing behind muskets and cannons,” Bessenger said. “A hundred and fifty years later, (angry) South Carolinians are sitting behind keyboards and fussing on Facebook.”

    That’s as succinct an assessment of Confederate Heritage™ as you’re ever going to find.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2016 @ 16:15

      “Liking” a Facebook page is not the same thing as engaging in serious activism.

  • Shoshana Bee Jul 10, 2016 @ 15:58

    Quote: PS: Being a racist did not mean you supported slavery.

    About a month ago, I gave this “racist” vs. “slavery supporter” some thought, and this is what I came up with:

    I read a phrase the other day “ Crime of thought” Perhaps it applies.

    The North abolished slavery in spite of its own deep racist history. The prevalence of a racist attitude is not the same or comparable to the treachery of racial bondage.

    Indeed, there is a difference.

  • Sandi Saunders Jul 10, 2016 @ 15:21

    I am sure that the white supremacy that pervaded this nation, against slaves, immigrants and native tribes is a very accurate description for most of the people at the time (and still is for too many) but that does not mean that those fighting for the Union were more racist than the Confederacy. That argument would only be true if slavery was not a component of the national argument amongst ourselves since our independence and most especially in the decade before the election of Lincoln and the rebellion of secession. And if so many Northern states had not already turned away from our national stain. PS: Being a racist did not mean you supported slavery. The CBF will never be divorced from the use of it as a racist symbol long after it was a battle flag in the actual war.

  • Andy Hall Jul 10, 2016 @ 14:43

    I’m glad this happened without incident. Given events of the past week, I doubt anyone was confident that that would be the case.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2016 @ 14:53

      Agreed. That they were only able to attract roughly 150 people speaks volumes.

  • Matt patterson Jul 10, 2016 @ 14:32

    Well spoken from a man who’s Facebooks page profile pic is of a segregated black unit lead by a white man. Does that picture of the black segregated soldiers make you get all warm inside because the “master” was leading his segregated crew? I would assume by today’s standards that white man would be a flat out “racist”. That white master was probably promoted to the Indian wars where he massacred thousands of “colored” native Americans. But yet your so proud.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 10, 2016 @ 14:53

      Hi Matt,

      I would assume by today’s standards that white man would be a flat out “racist”.

      Many white officers who led USCT would be considered racist by today’s standards. Than again, the vast majority of Americans would probably be considered as such. At the same time, if you read the wartime and postwar accounts by these men, many did reflect an evolution in how they viewed black men as a result of their performance on the battlefield, etc. Douglas Egerton has a new book on the black Massachusetts units coming out in the Fall, which I just finished reading. He spends a good deal of time on this particular subject. Highly recommended.

      BTW, I hope you feel better.

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