TOPICS > Politics

Debating the Confederate Flag

May 29, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For months this sight atop the South Carolina capital has been the topic of passionate local and national debate. The U.S. and South Carolina state flags flying above the flag long considered a symbol of the confederacy. Supporters see the flag as an emblem of the state’s rich heritage. Opponents say it glorifies slavery and segregation. South Carolina has been the only state still flying that flag over government property. But last week South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges signed a bill to take it down.

GOV. JIM HODGES: This debate is over. Let us move forward together and united. God bless you and God bless the great state of South Carolina.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After months of bitter debate, two houses of the state legislature adopted a compromise May 18th, which was devised for the July 1st removal of the flag. But the deal also provides for flying a similar confederate flag behind a monument on the same statehouse grounds.

JOE NEAL, South Carolina State Representative: We think that’s a mistake. That flag is offensive to most African-Americans, and we prefer that it not be placed in the gathering place of all of us here at state government.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The compromise left some flag opponents angry and vandals sprayed red paint on the proposed monument site, which was quickly cleaned up. Six of South Carolina’s seven black Senators voted in favor of the compromise, while only four of twenty-six black members of the House of Representatives did.

DAVID WILKINS, Speaker of the South Carolina House: I think that’s unfortunate. I think it sends a – at best – a mixed message, and I think even a bad message. If black members didn’t vote for the bill that takes the flag off the dome, I think that’s hard to explain.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The NAACP opposed the compromise and promised to expand the tourism boycott it began January 1st. The disputed flag was first raised over the state capitol in 1962, some say as part of a Civil War Centennial celebration. Others say it was and has remained a gesture of defiance in the face of the civil rights movement, a deliberately offensive celebration of pro-slavery sentiment. The Georgia state flag – with a similar motif – is also under attack by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, among others.

And Mississippi’s flag, displaying a diagonal cross in the upper left-hand corner, may be on its way out. A commission has been appointed under Governor Ronny Musgrove to design a new flag. Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida also have what some consider symbols of the confederacy in their flags. There, too, opponents want new design. The recent events in South Carolina have strengthened flag opponents who believe they now have the power to bring about change.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now four perspectives on history and the flag. Novelist and historian Shelby Foote has written extensively about the Civil War; Roger Wilkins is a professor of history at George Mason University; Mississippi native Bill Dunlap is an artist in Washington; and Ronald Walters is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. Shelby Foote, this Memorial Day weekend is a good time to be talking about war and memories. What does the flag mean to you?

SHELBY FOOTE: The flag is a symbol my great grandfather fought under and in defense of. I am for flying it anywhere anybody wants to fly it. I do know perfectly well what pain it causes my black friends, but I think that pain is not necessary if they would read the confederate constitution and knew what the confederacy really stood for. This country has two grievous sins on its hands. One of them is slavery – whether we’ll ever be cured of it, I don’t know. The other one is emancipation – they told 4 million people, you’re free, hit the road, and they drifted back into a form of peonage that in some ways is worse than slavery. These things have got to be understood before they’re condemned. They’re condemned on the face of it because they take that flag to represent what those yahoos represent as – in their protest against civil rights things. But the people who knew what that flag really stood for should have stopped those yahoos from using it as a symbol of what they stood for. But we didn’t – and now you had this problem of the confederate flag being identified as sort of a roughneck thing, which it is not.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ronald Walters, what does the flag mean to you?

RONALD WALTERS: Well, I think the flag is a symbol of the most terroristic and oppressive period in the history of black people in America. It brings back memories of the pain and the degradation of our people. And to that extent, you know, it’s really interesting to me to hear people talk about the various manifestations of that flag. That’s really beside the point. The constitution of the South is really beside the point. What’s important about that is what was done, the culture, the civilization that meted out the most brutal punishment of the people you could imagine, and so that is what that flag means to most black Americans, I would assume.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Wilkins, what does it mean to you?

ROGER WILKINS: Well, the same as it means to Ron. I can understand when Shelby Foote refers to his great grandfather with warmth and affection, and I’ve a great grandfather too. He’s buried someplace in northern Mississippi. And he was a slave all his life. Our history is often presented to us as a triumphal march from Jamestown to Oahu, I guess, and it’s all been glorious and wonderful, but our history is full of pain and loss too. And this kind of debate brings out everybody’s pain and – white people lost and were injured by the terribleness of slavery and surely black people were – and we’ve got to find some kind of middle ground to understand each other because we can’t continue to use our common history or bits of it to continue to injure each other. That is not the way to march toward a common destiny.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bill Dunlap, you use the flag every once in a while in your painting; you’re an artist. Why?

BILL DUNLAP: I’m guilty as charged, guilty as charged, put the cuffs on me, take me away. Well, it’s a very simple reason. It’s a very, very powerful symbol, and if you can separate it from the baggage of history and the histrionics that surround it and look at it, it’s almost from a graphic design point of view perfect. I mean, in all the history of heraldry there’s nothing that looks quite like that. The only improvement I would make is to make that center star a little bit larger than your eye would lock in on it and you couldn’t go away from it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you can’t separate it from –

BILL DUNLAP: No, you can’t but I’m fervently trying to nail down the middle ground here, and it’s shrunk up to something about the size of Mr. Faulkner’s postage stamp of native soil. But the painting in question – it was brought to your attention – something I called in 1987 “Meditations on the Origin of Agriculture in America,” in which a tiny little corner of the illegal flag protrudes from under another canvas that’s a brooding, sort of dark Southern landscape. And for me compositionally to put a little hot spot of red in the otherwise gray field was the perfect solution, but it was also rife with content, and I think that’s what I try to do. That’s what artists have to do. That’s our responsibility – is to put charged images next to one another and let somebody else figure out what they mean.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Shelby Foote, listening to all this, this symbol really is a symbol of a huge difference about how to view American history, isn’t it?

SHELBY FOOTE: Yes, it is. I don’t object to any individual hiding from history, but I do object to their hiding history from me. And that’s what seems to me to be going on here. There are a lot of terrible things that happened in American history, but we don’t wipe ’em out of the history books; we don’t destroy their symbols; we don’t forget they ever happened; we don’t resent anybody bringing it up. The confederate flag has been placed in that position that’s unique with an American symbol. I’ve never known one to be so despised.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you would – you said you’d like to be able to fly it anywhere. You’d just like people to discuss what it means, have arguments, have debates, but not to remove it, is that the idea?

SHELBY FOOTE: I can’t really argue with the people’s decision to remove it; if a constitutional body decides to remove the flag from a certain place, I can’t argue with that decision. I differ with it, but I can’t really argue with it because it’s a fait accompli. But to me the flag is a noble symbol, and I’m sorry to see it scorned. The confederacy stood for a great many things other than slavery. A dependent slavery is part of its right to decide what it wanted to do, but that was not what people fought the war about on either side. It was greatly contributory to starting the war and it was contributory to the North winning the war because of Lincoln’s definition as a war about slavery. It was not that in the first place or the last place. It was other things, many other things.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Wilkins, do you think this is a debate about the past, or is it really a debate about race in America today, and that’s why it’s so passionate?

ROGER WILKINS: Well, the pain of our history resonates powerfully in human life today — not only do blacks still feel the pain of slavery, but I think that whites miseducated to believe that they were entitled to be privileged forever feel a loss from black people beginning to take their rightful place as full citizens of this society. So it is a debate about both things. I think that if you listen to Shelby Foote talk about what the Civil War was about, you realize that at some point people like Shelby Foote and Roger Wilkins will have to sit across the table – having read everything they can read – and then have a discussion about what the Civil War was actually about in ways that would help to enlarge the understanding of everybody within their hearing. My sense is we need – we can’t hide from our – I agree with him – we can’t hide from our history but we can’t pretty it up either.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree with that, Shelby Foote, that that discussion is necessary?

SHELBY FOOTE: I don’t think that it’s prettying it up to have a symbol present. I would be delighted to talk with Roy Wilkins about this. I really believe we’re not as far apart as it sounds like we are. I think we’re both very much for the same thing but we don’t know how to go about getting there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bill Dunlap, is it possible this debate shows that there aren’t as many really serious other problems to deal with as there used to be?

BILL DUNLAP: Well, what it shows me – I’ve been watching this fascinating debate. I see the people I love and admire sort of, you know, worry about how the flag is a symbol; it shows the power of the symbol. It also tells us that, I think, the heavy lifting of the civil rights movement is done. I mean, Jim Crowe is moldering in his grave, and it’s a very good thing, but there are other issues to deal with, but to get back to Roger’s point, let me just say this – that I’ve seen the future of the confederate battle flag – and it’s in the capable hands of two young entrepreneurs in Charleston, South Carolina – one Sherman Evans and Angel Quinterro – who have taken that battle flag and reconfigured it. The red, white, and blue has disappeared to be colored in with black, green, and red, which are the colors of Africa –

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve got a hat, right?

BILL DUNLAP: Yeah. I’m a client of these guys and these are bright young entrepreneurs; they are of a different generation. I don’t think you can sell this argument to that generation. They don’t care. These guys are selling this product, and everybody’s wearing it. Black people are wearing it, white people are wearing it, and they’ve got this business off the ground at the Million Man March. They couldn’t sell these things fast enough. That’s so close to art it’s almost scary. I wish I’d thought about it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ronald Walters, what’s your reaction to that, and also, do you agree that the heavy lifting is done of the Civil Rights movement?

RONALD WALTERS: Well, I think in a sense Dunlap is right. I think that what we see here – the attack on the flags in all of these states really is sort of the last gasp of the legitimacy of Southern nationalism. A flag is a symbol of the state and this particular flag was a symbol of Southern nationalism. And I think that what the NAACP is saying is that let us take the nationalism out of this – let us privatize this – let us put this in the realm of private culture. Everybody has a right to that. No one disagrees about that. That’s legitimate with me. What I think that what we’ve got to do is to talk about this, but I don’t think dialogue, in the final analysis, is going to make it, because we are too invested in these different histories, and so we can talk, but I think in the final analysis what we have to do is really get into some common projects, because I don’t think I am ever going to convince Shelby Foote that the Civil War was not about slavery. As far as I am concerned, it was very much about slavery, and I think that really marks our different perspectives on a very historical event. So I think what we’re going to have to do is to work out a common future, rather than to argue about the past.


SHELBY FOOTE: I certainly did not say the war was not about slavery. I said it was about a great many other things too. We have a hard time talking across this gap. I wish that somehow you could take the Jews as a model. They’re not ashamed of having been slaves in Egypt; they’re not ashamed even of the Holocaust; they do not mind calling people’s attention to it. But my black friends seem to wish this thing would – had never happened and want to pretend that it didn’t happen. I don’t understand that kind of erasing of history.


RONALD WALTERS: I don’t think it’s a question of pretending that it didn’t happen. It did happen. And I think that the shame is a little bit different. We have overcome, I think, the shame. A lot of the 1960s was about eliminating that shame. But I think that you cannot compare sort of the Jewish history of slavery to African-American history of slavery because our history of slavery was slavery inside a state, and the people who enslaved us are still here, and that is a profound difference in what the Jews have suffered historically. I might also say it’s different than what they have suffered in modern history. The Holocaust was something that happened in Europe. Slavery was something that was done to us right here. And that really is part of the problem.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Wilkins, very briefly. We have to go but you wanted to say something.

ROGER WILKINS: Well, I surely disagree that black people are ashamed of slavery. I think that most of us as a result of what we went through in the 60’s find a great deal of strength in our slave ancestors that we have to live up to. We don’t want to be eradicated. We don’t want to forget those ancestors that we had, and we don’t want to forget what slavery taught us about the nature of human beings either and how imperative it is to struggle for human decency every day of your life.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you all very much for being with us.