Over the past few months I’ve noticed a disturbing trend developing here in my little corner of Northeast Pennsylvania. It comes in the form of a rectangular piece of cloth, crisscrossed by two blue bars, thirteen stars, and has found its way onto all sorts of things.
The confederate flag, or rebel flag, has been a sensitive topic ever since the civil rights movement of the 1960s when the counter movement used it as a symbol of opposition, most notably the Ku Klux Klan. More recently, it was a topic of debate during the 2000 presidential election when McCain flip flopped on his perception of the flag:
Over the last three days, Senator John McCain has made three conflicting statements on the Confederate battle flag issue raging in the key primary state of South Carolina, and with each statement, his position has become less clear.
On Sunday, speaking on the CBS News program ”Face the Nation,” Mr. McCain said he considered the battle flag ”offensive” and a ”symbol of racism and slavery.”
The next day, in a statement distributed to South Carolina reporters, Mr. McCain reversed himself and called the flag ”a symbol of heritage,” using the precise language that white Republicans have used in the state to justify keeping the flag flying over the statehouse. Aides said he had misspoken in the television interview.
Then last night, in an interview in New Hampshire, Mr. McCain reversed himself again, saying that if he said he sees the flag a symbol of heritage, he misspoke.
Article Source: NYT
Despite his inconsistency, I think McCain illustrated a valid point. What the confederate flag stands for changes depending on who you ask. For some, it is a symbol of oppression. For others, it is an icon of heritage. For others still, it stands for constitutional state rights. But how much weight does this argument carry, especially in my hometown in Pennsylvania where we have no historic ties to the symbol of the South?
The argument of the confederate flag as a symbol of heritage is justified. It factually is a piece of Southern heritage as much as the American flag is a symbol of American heritage. There is no denying that. There is also no denying that the flag is a symbol of racism and oppression. To argue otherwise is to argue against the heritage that one would claim the flag is a symbol of.
However, when tackling the argument of constitutional state rights Mackubin T. Owens, while doing research for his doctoral dissertation, had this to say:
The states’ rights argument became a staple of post-war Southern apologetics, advanced by such prominent Confederates as President Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens, and is still invoked by neo-Confederates and their allies today….
I came face to face with the falsity of the states’ rights claim when I was a doctoral candidate in political philosophy about 20 years ago… But then I met Harry V. Jaffa, America’s foremost Lincoln scholar, who asked me if I had ever read Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech. Like most Southerners, I had not.
I was astounded by what Stephens said to the people of Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861. In this speech, delivered after the inauguration of Lincoln and before Fort Sumpter when Southerners believed the Confederacy would peacefully achieve its independence, Stephens repudiated the Declaration of Independence as “the sandy foundation” of the old Constitution.
In the course of his speech, Stephens acknowledged slavery to be the cause of the sectional crisis besetting the nation, and claimed that the new Confederate constitution would solve the problem upon which the “old Union” had foundered. The “foundations [of our new Government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition…”
After reading Stephens’ speech we can clearly see that even under the guise of constitutional state rights, the superiority of the white man was the cornerstone of their new government. While it is true that states do have the constitutional right to secede, to say that this reason alone is justification for the flying of the confederate flag today is flimsy at best.
So, what are we left with?
If I were to conduct a survey and ask people what their impression of the confederate flag is, I can assure you, especially here in the North, that the overwhelming majority of answers would be along the lines of racism. I can also say with 99% confidence that those who decide to fly, hang, or tattoo the confederate flag on themselves know exactly the type of negative connotations the confederate flag has associated with it.
That being said, I think it is more than clear why someone, regardless of what they say is their reasoning for displaying the confederate flag is, would choose to do so in Northeast Pennsylvania. It would seem that for every two steps forward, we are always bound to take one step back.