(More) Second Thoughts about the Confederate Flag

[Note: After a long hiatus – overwhelmed by recent events both public and private – I return to this blog with an adaptation of two pieces published last month in Salon. – NB]

Speaking in Boston just days before the South surrendered at the end of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass warned that the North’s victory would not mean that that war had truly ended: “That enmity will not die out in a year, will not die out in an age,” he predicted.

As a former southerner himself, Douglass knew just how deeply invested the South was in its  slave-holding culture. He declared:

“I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down, you will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers.”

Six years later, in 1871, Douglass wrote that,  “A rebellion is upon our hands to-day far more difficult to deal with than that suppressed, but not annihilated, in 1865.” He was speaking of the rising wave of mob violence and terrorism directed against African Americans all across the region. Like a “pestilence,” Douglass observed, “this last form of the rebellion – covert, insidious, secret, striking in the darkness of night, while assuming spotless robes of loyalty in the day – is far more difficult to deal with than an open foe.”

Has the age of “enmity” finally ended? Has the “malignant spirit” finally died away? Has the “pestilence” finally abated?

The answer to all of these questions is “no.” The hateful actions of Dylann Roof remind of us of that. So do the white supremacist websites Roof found appealing. So do the many Confederate flags displayed all across the South — and beyond —  emblazoning T-shirts, affixed to car bumpers, and worn as lapel pins in business suits.

Douglass’s words remid us that the “heritage” these flags stand for was a bloody war initiated by the South. Those Southerners who fired the first shots to attack U.S. troops at Fort Sumter – just a mile or two from the church where Roof gunned down nine black worshippers – aimed not only to “defend” slavery, but to promote slavery’s spread across the nation, especially in the West.  The defeat of the South was the defeat of the slavery system.

That defeat is still mourned by many sympathizers with the Confederate cause across the nation, who have somehow forgotten that the Lost Cause was the cause of slavery. To them, the Confederate flag is an innocent symbol, a symbol that honors the Confederate dead and preserves the memory of their gallantry and fighting spirit.

They believe that on their own front porch, or on their own car bumper, it has nothing to do with the South’s long history of racial oppression – nothing to do with slavery, the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror, and then Jim Crow segregation laws.

That’s wrong. You can’t pluck out the thread of that history without unraveling the whole flag.

I know many Americans, in the North and the South, who believe that the Civil War “was not about slavery.” That’s also wrong. Anyone who doubts me should read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent article in The Atlantic, in which he quotes many Southern leaders of the time explicitly saying that they were fighting the war to defend slavery:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/

If Frederick Douglass were alive today, he would also ask all white Americans to reflect on the message this flag sends – inadvertently or not — to their black fellow citizens.

And he would probably say that all Americans who are truly opposed to the “malignant spirit” of racism should search their souls and ask if this symbol really does represent all that is best about the South and its heritage, including its belief in honor and courtesy.

Melissa Harris-Perry’s Apology: Criticism as the “Soul of Democracy”

Paul Waldman has written an excellent piece on Melissa Harris-Perry‘s exemplary apology following her show’s misstep with the photo of the Romney family.

I would add this brief addendum: Ms. Harris-Perry’s response stands in a long tradition of African-American respect for criticism. Herewith three examples:

Melissa Harris-Perry: “I am genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”

W.E.B. Du Bois: “Earnest and honest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, – criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led, – this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern democracy.”

Malcolm X: “I think all of us should be critics of each other. Whenever you can’t stand criticism you can’t grow.”

(There’s more on this tradition of African-American respect for criticism in my book, The Time Is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy.)