(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.

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Remembering the Orangeburg Massacre in the Time of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis

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As comment on the unjust verdicts in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis murder cases lit up the blogosphere this month, I saw scant mention of The Orangeburg Massacre, in which three black students were killed and many more wounded when state police opened fire on a campus demonstration back in 1968. Forty-six years have now passed since then, and that event deserves to be better known and more widely remembered. What follows is adapted from an article I wrote about it for The Boston Globe Magazine, published on February 10, 1985.

On February 8, 1968, more than two years before National Guard troops opened fire on demonstrating students at Kent State University,  three college students were killed and 27 were wounded by state police gunfire on a different campus. As at Kent State, the students were unarmed. As at Kent State, they could not believe that they were being fired upon, and many were shot in the side and back as they turned and ran. As at Kent State, “snipers” and “insurgents” were blamed for provoking the incident; as at Kent State, neither snipers nor insurgents were ever found.

But there the similarities between the two tragedies end. The shooting at Kent State sparked widespread outrage and protest, not only on other campuses, but at the highest levels of business and government – and among many American parents who realized that the dead and wounded students could have been their own children.

The earlier shooting, however, went relatively unreported and is to this day virtually unknown.  Why? Perhaps because Kent State, set in the heart of the Midwest, was a predominantly white, middle-class school, while the earlier shooting took place in Orangeburg, South Carolina, at South Carolina State College, where more than 95 percent of the students were black.

What exactly happened in Orangeburg on that February night 46 years ago? (continued on next page)

July 12: Waiting for the Verdict

As we wait for the verdict in the Zimmerman case to be announced, I find myself hefting the weight of that word “wait” once again. It has such a long and heavy history in the lives and thoughts of black Americans. It keeps coming back like a bad spirit or a zombie. Wait. Wait. Wait. Will it ever go away?

The most famous words about waiting are Dr. King’s. Familiar as they are, they’re worth remembering today:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has been advertised on television, and see tears welling in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing unconscious bitterness toward white people; ….when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued by inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Reading these words again today, waiting for a verdict that is sure to disappoint, can anyone not see the ghost of Trayvon Martin walking through them? Trayvon as a six-year-old boy being schooled about white folks by his parents? Trayvon as a teenager feeling clouds of bitter understanding – W.T.F?!? — forming in his mind? Trayvon in his last moments on the night of February 26, 2012, living as always at tiptoe and never knowing quite what to expect next: like, who is this creepy-ass cracker following me?

Once again we see the old claim of acting in self-defense put forward with the bland “innocence” that so enraged James Baldwin – whites’ denial of the fact that white racism has created the spectral, hooded blackness against which Zimmerman felt he had to “defend” himself.

Until the word “intent” recognizes that white racism shapes whites’ actions and attitudes in ways they are not conscious of – but are nonetheless accountable for – black Americans will go on waiting for justice. Until the word “malice” is understood to include racist fear among its meanings, many black Americans will go through life at tiptoe, fearful because they are feared. Until racism itself can be put on trial, we will all go on waiting — waiting for the verdict that finally puts an end to our waiting.