Blacks & the Confederate Flag Don't Mix

by Ken Morgan

The south shall ride again" according to The Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Sons are suing Maryland for calling back license plates displaying the confederate flag after Black leaders protested that the flag was a racist, white supremacist symbol.
A Son representative claimed the flag ( a symbol of the Civil War) stood for a principled difference and the Civil War that could have been avoided save for hot-heads (slave holders) and extremists (abolitionists) on both sides who were arguing about slavery over the three or four decades before the War.
He attempts to bolster the argument by throwing in tariff squabbles, ideas on state sovereignty, and the inherent disagreement between the industrial north and the agrarian south as other differences. For good measure, he throws in the acceptability of "our founding fathers" to slavery, describing them as "the leaders and thinkers of democracy's greatest and most durable example, our country. To damn them, heaven forbid, is to damn our stars and stripes." (The current stars and stripes are not hanging anywhere in my house-but that's another story).
The Black leadership correctly pinned the symbol of Black oppression and white supremacy on the Confederate flag, but stops way short of a complete explanation. The Sons distort and revise history, mixing in half truths.
This controversy made me think of several events in my childhood and young adult life that helped to formulate my view of the Confederate flag. One, a children's picture book of the life of Robert E. Lee that I was given about the time I was learning, through Negro History Week, that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. I remember: seeing a photograph of the Johnny Rebel flag being held up at a KKK rally in Jet Magazine circa 1955. It was in an issue that I've melded in my memory with a photograph of Emmet Till's lifeless body-with a 75-pound cotton gin fan knotted around his neck, the side of his skull crushed, with an eye rammed out and with a bullet wound through his head.
Through my teens, I recall watching television and seeing at every civil rights march where there were hecklers shouting Nigger, the Confederate flag marched too. Then as a Temple University student athlete, I remember standing for the playing of Dixie and the Wake Forest Demon Deacon prancing around the court waving the Confederate flag (before Tim Duncan and the black student campus movements). At that moment I dedicated winning the game to avenge the sin of paying homage to the Confederate flag. We lost the game, but...I gained some more consciousness.
First, compromises to the oligarchy slave property holders of the south by the national government (your founding fathers and then some) started with the writing of the constitution (with many in between) right up to the outbreak of the Civil War. The abolition of slavery had nothing to do with the origins of the war. Nor did the states' rights or free trade issue, as the Son of the Confederate Veterans claim. These issues were just sidebars to the main event.
The 300,000 slave holders and an even smaller, wealthier number of them controlled and benefited from the slave economy as well as influenced the thinking of the subsistence, poor, non-slave-owning, southern farmer (representing the vast majority of the South's population), to justify and perpetuate the institution. The new governing confederate constitution composed in 1860, in Montgomery, Alabama, took away more rights of those poor whites who would shed their blood than they enjoyed under the U.S. constitution. The poor whites, mostly subsistence farmers, represented the largest segment of the south's population, comprising most of the confederate army, had nothing to gain from the war except the hollow dream of perhaps being rich plantation slaveholders some day.
This hope was a part of the injection of institutional racism and white supremacist thought that was needed to maintain the social system, including having folks die for a cause that was counter to their well-being. The victory of the capitalist industrial manufacturing economy of the north would mean a herculean step towards a better quality of life for most non-slave-owning whites. Bottom Line: the struggle between the North and South was a struggle between the social system of slavery and the system of free labor that could no longer coexist. You could not have wage labor side by side with slave labor in the new industrial economy.
While abolitionists fueled the debate and heightened the contradictions and pushed pusillanimous leaders like Lincoln to act, they were not the driving force in initiating the War (John Brown ranks high on my favorite lists of abolitionists). Under radical reconstruction, with Blacks in office, some of these same "poor whites" benefited from local legislation that mandated compulsory education and the like.
Sojourner Truth, the great Black abolitionist warrior, perused lyrics to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for a regiment of Black Union soldiers, going off to fight, according to Dr. Bernice Jolmson Reagon, African American Music Historian and group leader of Sweet Honey and the Rock. Two of the several verses go:

We are colored Yankee soldiers Who've enlisted for the war. We are fighting for the union, We are fighting for the Lord. We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw --as we go marching on.
Look there above the center, where the flag is waving bright. We are going out of slavery. We are bound for freedom light. We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight- as we go marching on.
These lyrics captured the sentiments of almost every single Black in the North and in the South. They backed these sentiments up: over 156,000 Blacks in the Army, 39,000 in the Navy and over 200,000 volunteering in a non-military capacity, as well as the untold hundreds of thousands who voted with their feet, walking off the plantation, depriving the Confederacy of needed economic manpower.
That is where I and 99.9 percent of other African Americans trace our heritage to. Sorry, Anthony [Anthony Cohen, the first Black inducted recently as a new member into the Sons of Confederate Veterans at a Thomas "Stonewall Jackson-Robert E. Lee" ceremony!]
And to the whites who trace their roots to poor white subsistence farmers, serving as cannon-fodder for the rich slave oligarchy, who still sing "Dixie" too: you can always change your tune! Join in the chorus! Down with the Confederate flag!

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This story was published on February 6, 1997.