On their website, the Sons of Confederate Veterans describe themselves as preserving the “history and legacy” of the Confederacy. Their organization, they say, is “dedicated to ensuring that “a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.” I would suggest instead that the Sons of Confederate Veterans is guilty of rewriting history instead of preserving it.
They claim that the Civil War (they call it the “Second American Revolution”) was fought for the “preservation of liberty and freedom. Freedom for whom?
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, gave his infamous “Cornerstone” speech, in which he outlined the reasons for southern succession: “Our new government is founded on exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro (sic) is not equal to the White man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
If you drive South on US 95, you can see some version of the so-called Confederate flag (there are maybe seven iterations of the flag, parts of which are still the official flag of Mississippi) is used to advertise everything from hot dogs to automobiles, some say as a tribute to their ancestors (hot dogs, really?). The history of the Confederacy, as embodied in the Stephens speech, suggests that the flag instead is a symbol of White superiority.
No wonder the coward who was welcomed into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had draped himself in that heinous flag. No wonder racism is so intransient. No wonder the sale of Confederate paraphernalia rose with the election of President Barack Obama. The implicit message — a Black man may be president of the United States, but this flag reminds us that White superiority still reigns.
South Carolina didn’t always fly their version of the Confederate flag above its statehouse or display it on statehouse grounds. To “commemorate” the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, the flag went up on April 11, 1961. Was it a coincidence that sit-ins were taking place all over the country, one of the most successful taking place in Greensboro, NC, where Bennett College and North Carolina A&T State University students began sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s?
Incidentally, the Civil War Centennial Commission established as a federally funded agency inside the Department of Interior that could not overcome persistent racism. The Kennedy administration was forced to replace conservative commission leadership (that wanted to meet in segregated facilities), with a group that included historians. The activities, envisioned to “celebrate American patriotism at the height of the Cold War” and to increase tourism in the South, turned into a separate and unequal set of events.
In his book, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Making the Modern South), Robert J. Cook describes the tensions that emerged when Southerners wanted to “celebrate” secession and the attack on Fort Sumter, while others wanted to celebrate emancipation. Southern Whites saw the centennial as a way to fight to preserve segregation, while African Americans and some liberal Whites wanted to celebrate the end of the civil war, and the government wanted to celebrate our nation’s “triumph” over division and strife.
Those who embrace the Confederacy seem to forget that the Confederacy lost. The cornerstone principle of White supremacy was defeated when the Confederacy lost the war, but the continued sop to the losing Confederacy left us with all kinds of tributes to United States traitors.
I cringe whenever I drive down “Jefferson Davis Highway,” named after the Confederate president. I am flooded with annoyance when I refer to Fort Bragg, named after Confederate General Braxton Bragg. The Pentagon says they won’t change the names of the 10 military bases that lift up Confederate leaders. I just wonder why these bases were named after these traitors in the first place.
Taking the Confederate flag down is but the first step in defeating the White supremacy that the odious flag stands for. Now, in the name of the Emanuel Nine, we need to investigate the reparatory justice (reparations) needed to reduce the wealth gap. We need to take the traumatic massacre of the Emanuel Nine and use it as a way to accelerate the struggle for freedom and justice.
If the Sons of Confederate Veterans are really about history, then they need to read the Cornerstone Speech and repudiate it with as much vigor as they embrace the flag. Otherwise they are disingenuous liars who would distort history in order to celebrate their ignorance.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based author and economist. She welcomes reader response to www.juliannemalveaux.com.