91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Confederate flag debate important, but a side issue to what happened in South Carolina

As you probably know, there is now an intense debate over whether to remove Confederate flags and other symbols of the so-called “lost cause” from public places in the South.

My guess is that some will go away, but that most people have short attention spans. The longer their defenders can stall, the better the odds are that most will still be around in a year.

There’s a certain irony in all of this, two ironies, in fact. One is that this is by no means limited to the South. There are Confederate flags all over Michigan. Somebody in Flint created a stir last month by flying both Nazi and Confederate flags outside a home. In April, a Livonia man put a huge Confederate flag on his back fence and put hangmen’s nooses in his tree.

You know what that meant. But the real irony is that our sudden obsession with this historic racist symbol is a way of avoiding the main problem.

The twenty-one year-old man-child named Dylann Roof, a kid evidently with a history of drug and other problems, indeed seems to have embraced racism. He is accused of murdering nine black people in a church in Charleston last weekend, and allegedly said he wanted to start a race war.

But his preferred symbols seemed to be those of apartheid South Africa and the now long-vanished white supremacist state of Rhodesia.

I’ll bet Roof wouldn’t know the difference between general quarters and General Longstreet. But those nine people didn’t die because of racist symbols; they died because this troubled kid had no problem buying a deadly Glock pistol and taking it into a church.

But since our government and politics are controlled by the gun lobby, we feel we are powerless to try to do anything about that. So we instead are symbolically fighting racism. Not that this is a bad thing. The Confederate flag today is little more than a symbol of racist defiance.

Nobody puts it on the back of their pickup truck because they are thinking about the South’s great military strategy at the Battle of Fredericksburg. It is a symbol of the time eleven states tried to leave this nation because they thought their right to enslave other human beings was endangered.

Essentially, the Old Confederacy committed treason so that they could go on buying and selling, owning and oppressing four million people who they deemed to have no rights or humanity whatsoever. They were stopped by the bloodiest war in American history.

Afterwards, the flag had a long revival as the symbol of those who wanted to keep blacks in a state of terrorized serfdom. Incidentally, what we think of as the Confederate flag wasn’t that nation’s official flag at all, but something that closely resembles the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee.

But no matter. When Robert E. Lee surrendered a hundred and fifty years ago, U.S. Grant paid tribute to the military valor of the South. He gave them credit for fighting for a cause, even though “that cause was, I believe one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

I have to wonder if someday, people will say the same about the NRA.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Related Content