The Confederate Flag and the Legacy of the South

A year or two back a CNN/ORC poll indicated that 57% of Americans felt that the Confederate Flag was more of a symbol of Southern pride than it was of racism. This is about the same percentage as in 2000 when it was 59%. 

My feelings about the display of the Confederate Flag are very ephemeral. Although, I do feel that the recent public disputes on whether or not the Confederate Flag should be displayed has brought to light misconceptions that many people on both sides of this debate hold. The history behind the Confederate Flag and other related symbols are a part of a very complex societal dynamic. 

My dad was a Civil War expert whose interest in the era was sparked largely by the fact that his grandfather (William, my namesake) was a Union veteran who was inspired by Lincoln that the country must remain whole and that slavery was wrong. My great-grandfather was badly wounded and was stranded in no-man’s land for several days before Union soldiers rescued him. He survived and lived well into the 1900s. 

As a child my father took me along to many Civil War historical sights as he did his research. Although I may have been too young at the time to appreciate those experiences, I feel that I have grown into the significance of those travels. This is especially true since these trips with my dad were in the seventies and at the tail end of the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The odd context of many of the conversations that we had with the locals at these historical sites was as if the Civil War was a very recent part of modern history. That phenomenon was uncomfortably strange yet amazing at the same time. 

Although I am proud of my ancestry relating to my great-grandfather being a Union soldier, I played no role in his deeds. Simultaneously and also by contrast, neither did the people who have slave owners in their ancestry. In terms of the slavery of North America the participants have been consumed by time although forced labor in Africa and various other parts of the world is hardly a thing of the past. In fact, if we consider economic and sexual enslavement there are more slaves throughout the world now than there was in 1860. 

There were different versions of the Confederate Flag, I get it. I am not in favor of the Stars and Bars, the Stainless Banner, the Blood-Stained Banner, the latest incarnation of the Battle Flag, or for the purposes of this article any version of the flag commonly referred to as the Confederate Flag being displayed on public grounds or any official United States institutions. With that being said, I do believe that its display by private individuals or institutions is a free speech right that is critical to the continued evolution of our society. 

Our country has not always been on the right side of history. The good old days were not good for everyone. However, despite being flawed individuals in many ways themselves, the founding fathers of our government were brilliant in the way that they built in a method of self-correction into it. Free speech guarantees that the oppressed of society always have a voice. The civil rights movement and more recently the victories of the LGBT community would not have happened if Hitler had his way. The repression of the gay community in such places as Russia and the Middle East are prime examples of what happens when a segment of the population is silenced by the state. The ability to change social norms and the negative attitudes about an oppressed group throughout a given culture are virtually taken away. 

At the same time free speech provisions as they relate to governmental censorship do not apply to society at large. For example, if a storekeeper wishes to hang the Confederate Flag outside his front door the government cannot arrest him. On the other hand if his customers decide they no longer wish to shop at his store there is nothing in free speech provisions that will protect him. 

In reference to this topic and others I have noticed many people crying foul in this regard. Free speech is not a shield to enable people to say what they wish with impunity. Furthermore, no one has any rights in the court of public opinion. 

When we hear people defend the Confederate Flag we hear terms such as “southern heritage,” “rebel spirit,” and “independence.” Supporters of the Confederate Flag are nearly unanimous in their agreement that the flag does not represent slavery or racism. I do partially agree with supporters of the Confederate Flag when they claim that racists hijacked the flag, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, and this does not accurately represent the entire history of the flag. It is likely that the designers of the flag wanted to embody the positive attributes of the South in a Spirit of the South. The problem with this point of view is that what we may refer to as a Grand Southern Heritage applied merely to the people on the top rung of the South’s economic ladder and this dynamic did incorporate racism. 

Leading up to the years just prior to the Civil War slave ownership in the southern population could be generally estimated at about 25 percent. It is likely many individual slave owners utilized them for household and farming chores. Slaveholders utilizing massive workforces for the cash crops of the South such as cotton were uncommon in numbers. However, the few large plantations and similar big slave operations that did exist drove the brutal slave industry and owned the majority of the slaves in the South. 

The plantation legend, as it is sometimes referred to, created a false reality of the people of the South. The fantasy of a southern utopia included tales of southern belles and aristocrats socializing at highbrow gatherings. The facade that the Confederate Flag represents a heritage of “a land of cotton where old times there are not forgotten” still has many people of the South under its spell. 

The South established its own bizarre nationalism that was ingrained in an odd nous of individuality and a somewhat paranoid stance that “adversaries,” which were essentially free states or territories, bordered the South. Certain leaders of the South referred at one time to slavery as a necessary evil. Over time and in the decades preceding the Civil War the rhetoric morphed into an argument that slavery was a beneficial institution that created a hierarchical society more majestic to the model of a balancing democracy that the North emulated. 

The South also evoked The Bible and religion into pro-slavery rhetoric to influence society at large. Their claim was that The Old and New Testament sanctioned slavery and since the Bible is infallible ipso facto slavery was part of God’s order. 

Contrary to what it may seem, slavery did not serve most of the white population of the South well. Large slaveholders not only owned most of the South’s slaves but also controlled the wealth in the region. The middle class of the South held only a small proportion of the productive and developable land. The poor owned very little of anything. 

The image of the southern belle, a woman with a gleaming smile, wearing a golden necklace with a dangling crucifix adorned by her lily white breasts; contrasted greatly with the reality of southern women. White women of the South lived hard lives. Southern women were more likely to get married at a young age and have more children compared to other regions of the country. The construct of society in the South commonly had women living in seclusion from other women. Southern women also had a short life expectancy compared with women in more northern areas. 

A common misconception I have encountered was that the Confederate Army was not as well equipped as the Union Army simply because the North was richer. The South was far from poor. In fact, in 1860 the South was richer than any country in Europe except England. 

However, focused on the high profits of the plantation system, the southern states did not develop modern centers for commerce or new industries, which required skilled labor. This resulted in little diversification of the economy. Relying on high profits from forced labor in agriculture to drive the economy also resulted in the South falling far behind the North in manufacturing and transportation. The railroad system of the South was primitive compared to that of the North largely because southern railroads were set up mainly to transport cotton. 

In the North, on the other hand, even as the Civil War raged in 1862 the Congress did not neglect the development of the country. The House and Senate passed acts instituting an income tax to help pay for the war. Land grants were also created and homesteading was permitted on federal lands. Significantly, Congress also passed and Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 that created the transcontinental railroad and a telegraph line running along side of it. 

The telegraph system as a whole was the Internet of its time and was instrumental in the North’s victory. It gave Lincoln and Northern commanders a great system of communication and sharing reconnaissance information. Northern forces had specific groups of soldiers whose assignment was to do nothing but protect the telegraph lines. 

Interestingly, prior to the Civil War southern legislators opposed the country’s expansion fearing that these growing territories to the west would choose to be free. 

The plantation and agricultural system of the South did, however, support regional businesses including textiles, meat processing, and a host of other marketplaces. In addition, small towns sprung up near plantations and those plantations in turn had an enormous influence on the policies of those local governmental systems. The dependence of the southern economy, directly and indirectly, on the plantation system garnered a respect among southerners for the purveyors of the top financial structure of the South. This resulted in large plantation owners being placed into the position of the "job creators" of their time. 

Okay, are you ready for this? In 1860, more than half of the richest one percent of Americans lived in the South. 

The South’s reliance on a system that was skewed against them, along with the manipulation of abstract principles such as a rebel spirit and a vilification of the North, is how a fraction of the population drew the whole of society into a war to defend an economy based on forced labor. In reality, there was no need to subjugate blacks or anyone else as many people could have benefited by working those same jobs for a living wage. 

It is worth noting that many poor southern whites along with others who had no hand in slavery were less than enthusiastic about being called upon to take up arms against the North. Much like Erwin Rommel under Hitler a century later, these men were good soldiers caught up in unfortunate circumstances that put them on the wrong side of history. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time in history that the poor had to defend the interests of ill begotten big money. 

Robert E. Lee, the patron saint of Southern lore, had many divided loyalties himself on this matter. Lincoln had wanted Lee for the Union army. We can only speculate how much quicker the North would have won The Civil War had Lee chosen to lead Union forces as there is no question he was a superb general. In the end Lee was reluctant to fight against his home state of Virginia and the rest is history. Interestingly, after the South lost the war, Lee dissociated himself from symbols such as the Confederate Flag writing, "I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war.” 

No slavery and better-paid workers in the South would have resulted in a more diverse tax code and voter base, which likely would have led to a better way of life for everyone. Of course, it would have meant fewer profits for the one percent. Some people may call this wealth redistribution. Call it what you will but low incomes for much of the population in the South caused little support for taxes toward public education and similar governmental services. It spawned rampant illiteracy throughout the South. 

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt 

This concept rolls into our exercise of free speech rights. It’s one thing to have the right to speak; it’s another thing to know what you are talking about and what issues are relevant. 

Education does not stop with a diploma. One of the best ways to stay informed is to actually listen to people when they conduct free speech activities. That is the side of free speech that everyone forgets about, listening. Our ideologically driven society is more interested in shouting down the other side than hearing what other people have to say. We only listen to commentators and news sources that we like. The news apps on our phones can tailor the “news we can use” because God forbid we hear something we don’t like. 

Racism is a relevant topic and worthy of much careful analysis. However, those on all sides of the ideological spectrum often exploit the subject along with other sensitive issues. Bits of bloody red meat are thrown into the public waters igniting a scarlet bubbling feeding frenzy of hungry piranha that are so manic that they don’t even know what they are devouring. This invokes an old dark axiom that if the poor become too much of a problem in society the aristocracy can always convince half of the poor to kill the other half. 

The economic divisions in today’s society have grown rapidly over the past twenty or thirty years. These economic fissures often parallel racial lines, which only further camouflages them. While we argue over hot button issues and further divide ourselves, it has been estimated that forty percent of the current so called economic recovery has quietly gone to the top one percent. 

I do believe a mostly capitalist and free economy is best for innovation and growth. The promise of wealth is an enormous motivation for entrepreneurs and innovators to create prosperity that benefits all of us. The world would not be the same place without the likes of Henry Ford or the Wright Brothers. The American system has often leaded the way for the rest of the world to follow in that regard. There are also many wealthy people in the world today who are not only making the world a better place by helping to develop the science and industry that helps our country run but by being philanthropists on the highest order. 

By the same token, we cannot entirely rely on the generosity, the integrity, or the wisdom for that matter of just one percent of the population. The best types of economies are a mix of capitalism and socialism to some degree. As in the case of a sports league, we cannot allow one team to become so strong that it always wins. There would be no further innovations to the game. New stars would not emerge. The underdog would never win. The game itself would die. 

I’m not sure what the official meaning is of the Confederate Flag or what authority has the final word. I do know that when I hear the terms “freedom” and the “rebel spirit of the South" the question I have is from what? The South was not under the hand of tyranny. The only freedoms the upper power structure of the South wanted was the freedom to preside over a hierarchy in society that served them. 

Greed, which was allowed to run unchecked in the highest ranks of the southern economy, financial institutions, and social order; was responsible for the rebellion and the ultimate fall of the South. Any modicum of guilt about the atrocities committed against African-Americans and humanity as a whole in the South was trumped by greed. 

“As long as greed is stronger than compassion, there will always be suffering.” Rusty Eric  

To me, more so than a symbol of Southern Pride, the cautionary legacy of the Confederate Flag is the danger of allowing incredibly small percentages of the population to have enormous and disproportionate economic influence regarding our country’s societal investments, how we use our natural resources, what wars we fight, and how we feel about each other.

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This post was originally a blog post published July 5, 2015. It was revised and given its own page on this site April 2, 2017. A podcast covering much of the same content of this essay is available here and is also available on iTunes and Stitcher.