An editorial on the Confederate flag—from 2001



During the 2011 fight to repeal Ohio’s Senate Bill 5, I began to write op-eds on the many aspects of that legislation that would have reduced collective bargaining rights for all public employees in the state and would have completely eliminated those rights for college and university faculty. Initially the goal was to place op-eds in the print editions newspapers, but we soon discovered that we were generating much more response on media-related websites. So, although I continued to pen some op-eds, I began to focus more and more on responding to or elaborating on news stories, op-eds, letters to editors, and readers’ comments on all of those items on the websites of newspapers, television and radio stations, and blogs. I think that that experience of working with the other members of the Communications Committee of the Ohio Conference of AAUP led directly to my becoming a regular contributor to this blog.

Up to that point—that is, over the previous three decades–I had written only a handful of op-eds and letters to editors that had been published. But one of the op-eds that was published was in response to an editorial by Thomas J. Lucente, then the editor of the editorial page of the Lima News. My “guest editorial” appeared in a Sunday edition of the paper in late January 2001, and the number and types of response that it generated surprised me. We live in a very Republican part of Ohio, but the mail to my home address and the follow-up letters on the editorial page were about evenly split between support and criticism.

Reading this piece almost a decade and a half later, I am surprised that many aspects of my voice and my political viewpoints have remained the same, whereas other aspects of both have at least subtly changed. I think that the editorial, in comparison to some of my more recent posts to this blog, conveys that, in 2001, I was not quite as at ease with writing opinion pieces.

Or perhaps I have simply, in the interim, become much more opinionated and much less concerned with how others may respond to those opinions. That’s probably not an entirely good thing.

A controversy is a controversy if enough people think it’s one

I am writing in response to Thomas J. Lucente, Jr.’s, editorial “St. Andrew’s Cross under Fire Again.” Even if I agreed with Lucente’s basic argument for retaining the Stars and Bars in the state flags of various Southern states, his abuse of basic logic would make me very uneasy. But I don’t agree with him on this issue or on many others–and I am not an African-American or a member of the NAACP, I am not a “liberal extremist,” and I am not an advocate of unrestrained federalism.

Lucente opens with the statement that “yet another Southern icon is being sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.” He fails to mention exactly what those other “icons” might be–the “Whites only” signs at water fountains, restrooms, and restaurants? the robes and hoods of the Knights of the White Camellia and the Ku Klux Klan? the ceramic statues of Black liverymen still stationed at the end of the driveways of ranch homes across the rural South—and rural Ohio?

Lucente then argues that the NAACP is a politically ineffectual organization that ought to be ignored, that “there has been no evidence, other than the NAACP gripe, that the [Georgia] state flag is divisive,” that St. Andrew’s Cross is simply the “so-called Confederate battle flag,” and that the supporters of a new flag have “rammed” their statute through the legislative process. If the NAACP is so ineffectual, how has it created such a controversy and why does the support for its position now outweigh that of the opposition? Certainly Georgia is not such a stronghold of “political correctness” that common sense has been overwhelmed by “liberal” political and cultural expediency.

Is Lucente really implying that this controversy has no historical context–that the issue is one which the NAACP has fabricated as if out of thin air? If shown a picture of the Stars and Bars, how many Georgians would identify it as St. Andrew’s Cross and how many as the Confederate flag? And if President Obama achieves any quick legislative successes, should we describe them as having been “rammed” through the Congress or as representing his decisive energizing of a strong consensus of opinion?

Lucente suggests that if the Stars and Bars represent “slavery and racism,” the Stars and Stripes must be said to represent the same. Accepting that the history of the United States demonstrates that racism has been and remains a fundamental issue in the nation’s development, the Stars and Stripes had always represented, in the ideal, “liberty and justice for all.” The same cannot be said for the Stars and Bars. Even if it can be argued that the Civil War was fought primarily over states’ rights, rather than slavery, the Southern states raised the issue of their rights because the plantation system put them economically and politically at odds with the rest of the nation. It must also be emphasized that the Stars and Bars were resurrected in the post-Reconstruction South to represent the renewed subjugation on African-American rights under Jim Crow. If many African-Americans are haunted by the Confederate flag, it is not because it flew above the ranks in Pickett’s charge, but because it provokes all-too-recent memories burning crosses and lynched innocents.

Lucente’s observation that “both sides in the war had slaves” is such a distortion of history that it reminds one of the strained arguments in Holocaust denials. Certainly, residents in the so-called “border” states did own slaves, but slavery was almost non-existent throughout much–indeed, most–of the North. At the risk of overplaying the “Nazi” card, I think that one could draw a broad analogy between St. Andrew’s cross and the Swastika. Both flags have deep roots in Christian history, but both were ultimately used to promote a debased Christianity based on terror rather than on charity.

Lastly, Lucente builds to the incredible assertion that the Stars and Bars “stood for freedom from an overbearing government when the Confederacy adopted it, and today it stands for liberty for all people, black or white.” Isn’t that supposed to be the function of the Stars and Stripes? The issue of states’ rights was definitively decided—whether one believes that it was decided for better or worse–by the Civil War. We have since been unarguably Americans–not Ohioans or Georgians or Texans. It is one thing to be very wary of the dangers of an overreaching federal government or to honor the terrible sacrifices of Southern, as well as Northern, soldiers during the Civil War. But it is quite another thing to reflexively support every retrograde notion of what it means to be an American. We must honor our evolution as a people, as well as our noble beginnings. Although the Civil War may not have begun as a war to free the slaves, the North did ultimately embrace Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation and carried it, figuratively, as a battle banner–against the Stars and Bars.