Government & Politics
 

Memories of a black boyhood and my delight in the Confederate ‘stars and bars’

True confession: I, too, have loved the Confederate flag.

I was a 12-year-old black boy when “Dukes of Hazzard” premiered in 1979 — one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I can still sing the theme song, “The Good Old Boys” by Waylon Jennings. The Dukes’ “General Lee” was a baadasssss ride! I went to a car show just to see it.

Confederate flag, a.k.a. "the stars and bars"  .

Univ. of Virginia

Confederate flag, a.k.a. “the stars and bars” .

My Green Army Men collection included a Civil War set with both Union and Confederate soldiers. (I had a World War II Nazi army, as well.) Most times playing army, I would choose the soldiers in gray led by a miniature Gen. Robert E. Lee in full uniform, white bearded, sword attached. For a couple of years I had a mini-Confederate flag on a stick in my room. I really liked the boldness of the colors.

My friends and family lived on streets, went to schools and passed by monuments bearing the names of Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Francis T. Nicholls, Leonidas Polk and Jefferson Davis, and some still do. I saw the 1976 remake of “King Kong” at the Robert E. Lee Theater (ain’t there no more) on Robert E. Lee Boulevard (still is) with my mother and siblings. Many homes in my semi-integrated neighborhood, including the households of white kids I played with, flew the Confederate flag alongside the American flag.

White flight was just getting started. The nature of the Confederacy and its racist legacy was beyond my grasp at that age. I was too busy playing army and watching “Dukes of Hazzard” — just being a kid.

My regard for the Confederacy faded, of course, as I grew up, got a first-hand exposure to racism and learned a little history.

I learned that New Orleans was the largest slave market in the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. I learned that “states rights” was a legal subterfuge for perpetuating slavery and that secession was invoked as a political threat decades before the Civil War broke out.

I came to see the true “heritage” of the Confederacy in the famous Cornerstone Speech delivered in 1861 by its vice president, Alexander Stephens. Above all, Stephens wanted to dismiss any lingering vestiges of the notion that black people would ever have a claim on equality:

“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas,” he thundered. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Most Confederate conscripts were poor folks, working-class and agrarian whites who didn’t own slaves. (A mere 1.6 percent of Americans were slaveowners, according to the 1860 census.) But the message from their Confederate overlords was succinct: Take up arms, go to jail or face execution. As was true then, so it is today: For economic gain and societal control, the one percent manipulates the masses, distracting us from our own best interests.

Under the banner of the “stars and bars” the Klan was born, Reconstruction was decimated and Jim Crow, our new dictator, ran amok throughout the south. The battle flag fluttered above lynching picnics and festivals in celebration of “white supremacy.”

Segregationists and Dixiecrats flaunted the battle flag as they dug in against integration and civil rights for black Americans. With the election of a black president, it provided a banner for those harkening to a new rallying cry, “Take back our country!” And it continues to resonate with magic power in the hearts and minds of people like Dylan Roof and his admirers, those responsible for the rash of church burnings that have followed mass murder in Charleston.

Do I want the flags and monuments to the Confederates taken down and streets honoring slave owners to be renamed? Yes, I do. But only from government buildings and public spaces, including state flags and license plates.

We need living reminders of the sickness Southern minds are prey to. And besides, efforts at total eradication only backfire, infusing the condemned symbol with the power of a taboo.

I have no issue with you flying or wearing a Confederate flag, if that is how you choose to honor your ancestors. This is America; you’re free to do so. Just as I have the right to display my red, black and green Pan-African flag, commonly known as Black Liberation Flag. Indeed, I did so as a U.S. Marine.

While in the Corps, we lived in open barracks partitioned into cubicles. There were flags of all kinds hanging on walls and in windows — Confederate flags included. I bought a Black Liberation Flag and hung it in my cube above my rack, as we called our beds. Someone wasn’t pleased.

Days later, I got a visit from the sergeant major. He asked me about my flag and said I might have to take it down. I told him it was a symbol of my African heritage, my way of commemorating our liberation from slavery and colonialism. It signifies the natural wealth of Africa and the unity we feel as a people, I told him. I pointed out the Confederate flags hanging in the barracks. I couldn’t resist mentioning the Confederate flag tattoo on his own arm. My flag remained in place.

Here in New Orleans we are a city of many cultures and heritages and always have been. The heritage you choose to invoke with your Confederate battle flags is one of death and destruction inflicted upon black people both before and after “the lost cause” was indeed truly lost. Fly your flag if you must, but asking me to respect your heroes is ludicrous.

Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor, wasted no words in responding to a radio caller defending Confederate symbols as a show of respect for her ancestors: “I have no respect for your ancestors,” Butler said. “ As far as your ancestors are concerned, I shouldn’t be a law professor, I should be a slave. That’s why they fought the war. I don’t understand what it means to be proud of a legacy of terrorism and violence. … The Idea that a German would say, ‘You know that thing we did called the Holocaust? That was wrong, but I respect the courage of my Nazi ancestors.’ That wouldn’t happen.”

I agree.

Eugene Thomas is a self-employed real estate broker, an attorney, a Sunday night DJ on WWOZ and an ordained Babalawo priest in the Ifa tradition of the Yoruba people.

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  • Tim

    Thank you for your wise words. Let’s use our public spaces to honor people and ideals deserving of honor.

    Peace

    Tim

  • David Richardson

    Mr Thomas,

    I am sorry to hear of your negative experiences with racism in the South. It is true there are those who are racist, of all skin colors (I refer you to the Black Panthers as reference). And its true that some of the leaders of the South during the War were for Slavery, but not all were. Jefferson Davis (the President of the Confederacy) wrote that it was not about slavery, and in fact had begun manumission before the war was even over. Virginia had begun manumission before the war began. With regards to racism, and white supremacy I have no greater villain to point to than Abraham Lincoln, who offered to permanently enshrine slavery as a olive branch to the South (see the Corwin Agreement), or the fact that he proposed deporting all freed slaves after the war to Haiti or Liberia. If he had lived you and your family would probably have never seen the Dukes of Hazard, and would have been scratching out a living in a country that even today doesn’t have indoor plumbing or pipe-born water in many places.

    My Ancestor like many not only did not own slaves, condone slavery, or was compelled to fight for slavery. He was a Scottish immigrant who knew what it felt like to be under the boot of oppression, and came to America to make a new life for himself. But after only a decade (give or take) in the United States, he witnessed a president who trampled on the Constitution like a dirty rag, arresting State Representatives for absolutely no reason other than to prevent them from doing their elected duty, he ordered soldiers to guarantee local elections in for his favored candidates, imprisoned citizens who refused to inform on their friends and family activities, and many other crimes. THAT is why my ancestor took up arms against the Union… to preserve the Constitution, not destroy it.

    Robert E Lee never purchased any slaves.. his wife did inherit some, which he freed before the end of the war. Nathan Bedford Forest gave his slaves the choice of fighting as freemen, or staying at home and waiting for the end of the war.. they chose to fight, and one even acted as his chaplain. In fact N.B.F. became a Civil Rights activist after the war… Look it up… Was everyone perfect?… NO. Was Slavery right… NO. But it was an institution that had existing for hundreds of years (in both the North and South), and it takes times for people’s minds and hearts to change.

    Fly your ancestor’s flag, and I’ll fly mine. But please don’t disrespect my ancestors by condemning them for the actions of a small minority. That would be the same as me blaming all black Americans for the actions of the Black Panthers, or the “Black Lives Matter” activists who are presently destroying public and private property, and assaulting people who are doing nothing wrong except waving their flag. That is criminal behavior.

    There were many honorable soldiers on both sides of the War. They deserve respect and their place in history. I do not have a problem with the Battle Flag coming down off a government building. But I do have a problem with the fanatics trying to remove every monument, memorial, and museum. And I do think there should be more memorials for blacks who suffered and those who stood up for what was right.

    Peace on, and long may (both of) our flags wave!

  • Tim

    What a crock of shit! Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and PGT Beauregard all renounced their loyalty to the United States of America and then waged bloody war against the United States of America. Doesn’t that disqualify them from reverence by anyone who pledges allegiance to the United States of America?

    Take these monuments down. Honor your ancestors any way you see fit, but the leaders of the failed Southern rebellion deserve no honor in our public spaces.

  • PappyYokum

    Firstly, the stars and bars is the Confederate first national flag, not the Confederate battle flag.
    Secondly,
    Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens were in agreement with regard to
    racial equality. Though Lincoln was philosophically for the extinction
    of slavery, his vision of America’s future was one without anyone of
    African descent. He favored the deportation of free Blacks to Africa,
    the Caribbean, Central America, or anywhere outside North America.
    Thirdly,
    the Confederacy was formed because the sectional Republican party had
    taken control the Washington D.C. with no Southern support on a platform
    of anti-Southern hatred. The United States was formed as a voluntary
    association of free republics with each having the same status as each
    of the others. The North intended to dominate the South. That is why the
    South seceded. That is why the North invaded.
    Fourthly, some like to
    fixate on race and slavery, but that is neither the reason for
    secession, nor for the war. Lincoln and Congress stated the war was
    about preserving the Union and Lincoln repeatedly promised the seceded
    states could return to the Union and keep slavery. As an illustration
    of that, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware kept their slaves as
    slaves for the entire war and West Virginia entered the Union in mid
    1863 as a slaveholding state. Nevertheless, the Confederate states
    didn’t take Lincoln up on his offer because that was not the issue.
    Jefferson Davis said it was about the right to independence and
    self-determination; the Republicans intended to subjugate the South and
    that violated the principles upon which the Union was created.
    Finally,
    during the war, Blacks defended their homes and families just like
    everyone else in the South. They suffered privation and loss like
    everyone else did. This should have strengthened the bonds among those
    who shared this common experience, but the Republican party, with no
    support in the South, decided to use slavery and race as a wedge issue
    to build a power base among newly freed men during Reconstruction to
    maintain political control. They successfully created a rift that has
    continued on 130 years after Reconstruction ended. It is a shame and a
    terrible waste of energy. Telling people they should be ashamed of their
    history and their family. Telling them they have to hide what makes
    them unique is not going to generate peace or understanding or
    friendship. All it will do is widen the rift that should never have
    been created in the first place.

  • Tim

    “Telling them they have to hide what makes them unique …”

    Did you even read the editorial above? Did you read what I wrote? This is a free country and you can wave any flag you want. A swastika, a Union Jack or a rebel flag–it’s your call. But in public spaces we should NOT be paying homage to people who waged war against the United States of America.

    By the way, do you pledge allegiance to America? Just wondering.

  • Texas Militia

    Black people have much bigger issues don’t ya think lol geez

  • David Richardson

    Tim,

    The States were within their rights to secede, and Lincoln waged war on them to force them to return to the Union. That was exactly what the Union’s Declaration of War said.. not to end Slavery.. but to force those states to return to the Union. Those men whom you are maligning chose loyalty to their States over a presidential tyrant who soiled the Constitution to build his empire. They defended their new sovereign nation from invasion. The South wasn’t trying to conquer the North, it was the other way around…

    It is the duty of any officer to question his leaders and object if he find their orders morally wrong. Lincoln was wrong in a good many of his actions and if you do your research you will find out just how wrong he was…

  • Tim

    Just curious, do you pledge allegiance to the United States of America? Because it sounds like, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, you’re siding with the Confederate States of America.

  • David Richardson

    I most certainly do pledge allegience to the Flag.. from childhood on up… and that allegience is to the flag, and the constitution, not corrupt leaders who suspend the Constitution for their own personal goals…

    https://video-mia1-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hvideo-xaf1/v/t42.1790-2/11854239_929598573761889_2130399294_n.mp4?efg=eyJybHIiOjM3MiwicmxhIjoxMzA5fQ%3D%3D&rl=372&vabr=207&oh=d4ce48fe4203558a05501a1eaa1753cc&oe=55C41F82

  • doug gano

    So will he say the same of the BLACK slave owners, or of the new Black American population killing each other and whites, their attacks on cops, their huge drug problems and drug dealings?? How proud he must be for how low his race has made it! No other race in America is proud to be a gangster, drug dealer, and a welfare mom of too many kids with however many dads that are no where to be found! Maybe he should focus on the blacks fixing their own problems and worry a little less about a flag!! Black Lies Matter and we are tired of them!

  • Tim

    Not sure what that video has to do with the topic here. We’re not talking about building monuments to Lincoln. We’re talking about should we have monuments to men who led soldiers in a war against the United States of America. I agree that there have been and there continue to be politicians who violate the Constitution and ignore the laws. I say there are appropriate ways to resist those individuals. You seem to believe an appropriate reaction is to raise an army and go to war against your own country. That is where you and I disagree. I think George W Bush led us into horrific wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However at no time did I join with the Iraqis to repel the U.S. invaders. That would be treasonous. I’m having a hard time understanding how you justify support and even reverence for an army that fought AGAINST the Stars and Stripes. That sounds a lot like the soldier in Vietnam who told a reporter “We had to destroy the village in order to save it from the Vietnam Cong.”

    Simply put, Lee, Davis and Beauregard were traitors to their country. They could have been tried and executed, but in the spirit of forgiveness they were allowed to go free. There should not be statues of them on government property.

  • Lektrikwire

    Those men you so glibly slander were ALL pardoned by the president of the United States by Christmas 1868. Nearly every fighting man was granted immediate amnesty with their surrender and loyalty oath in 1865. Does not the judgement of an earlier generation of leaders count? Do presidential pardons mean nothing?

    Even the 14th Amendment, which denied certain classes of Confederate leaders positions in the federal government, provided for exceptions on approval of Congress. So revered was Robert E. Lee that Congress voted to symbolically extend the exception to him in 1890, 20 years after the Southern general died.

    America’s first “greatest generation” — the surviving men of both armies who were, collectively, responsible for the deaths of more than 600,000 of their fellow citizens (nearly half the fatalities of all U.S. wars) — accomplished an amazing feat of reconciliation, reuniting the country after the war.

    Veterans of both armies met in joint encampments under their respective flags as comrades and attended dedications of each other’s monuments. The first soldiers’ home for disabled Confederate veterans was built, in part, thanks to the financial donations of Union veterans. These were men who had skin in the game.

    The post-war proliferation of Civil War names for cities, streets, schools and the monuments that were raised in the North and South are the historic relics of that generation’s healing process. It’s how they put flesh on Abraham Lincoln’s promise of “malice toward none.”

    Show me this level of bonding between former combatants in the Mideast or Eastern Europe where thousand-year-old grudges go unresolved. They gave us the gift of reconciliation and unity before they died — that is what you trample on.

    And you trample on something else — American veterans.

    U.S. Code Title 38, adopted by Congress in 1958, recognizes Confederate veterans as U.S. veterans. They’re “our boys.”

  • David Richardson

    It wasn’t the spirit of forgiveness why they were never tried for treason. It was because the Chief Justice advised Lincoln that they were within their rights to secede and therefore had committed no crime, and it would not go well for him if that were brought before the public in a trial.

    Again, more history they don’t teach in school… but its out there for the diligent mind to find. Seek and Ye Shall Find.

  • Tim

    Your selective perception on this topic is absolute. Do you really see no difference between, “Let’s pardon these traitors so we can rebuild our nation,” and, “These fine men are an example for the generations so let’s build statues to honor their service”?

  • Tim

    Perhaps they don’t teach that in history class because it’s not true. Jefferson Davis was indicted on charges of treason but before the trial started President Johnson pardoned him and everyone else who took a loyalty oath. Still waiting for you to explain why people who took up arms against the United States of America should now be honored in our public spaces.

  • nickelndime

    Jehovah’s Witness individuals do not and are not required to pledge allegiance to flag of the United States of America. So what? And these individuals are not the only ones who choose not to recite The Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America.
    I have seen too many politicians with American flag pins in their lapels, and most of them are some of the worst and most corrupt “Americans” around.
    08/06/2015 10:44 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Do YOU (generically speaking and politically correct) all remember that old saying, “History is written by the victors.”? Well, “nickelndime” is only a grasshopper in this area, but the State of Louisiana Department of Education has so (expletive deleted) deleted and/or rewritten the American history curriculum that is presented to public school students in this state, it is no wonder that the majority of students cannot adequately answer questions on national standardized exams. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! This state has done a bang-up job, while Cedric the Entertainer (pardon, Cedric Richmond) travels abroad.
    08/07/2015 4:01 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    When public things (streets, schools, …) start getting renamed, it should be a signal to the aggrieved group that yo ASP (yo ASP, not my ASP) has been given a token of OUR appreciation (blankets, ribbons and bows, trinkets). The dice are loaded – Krewe of Rex, Pro Bono, New Schools for New Orleans, RSD, City Hall…Wake up! 08/07/2015 4:13 AM DST USA

  • Lektrikwire

    Reread what I wrote. The post-war generation did precisely that — honored men of both sides in order to forge a unified nation. That unified nation — thanks in part to the bravery of grandsons and great-grandsons of Confederate veterans — won WWII. This generation of political hucksters and hate peddlers are destroying that unity.

    If you want to tear down monuments, consider those to Sherman and Sheridan, Union generals who went on to commit genocide against Native Americans.

  • Lektrikwire

    They were not tried because their defense of the right of secession would have prevailed, showing that the Union was not only the Victor but the aggressor.

  • Deep South Digs

    Ah yes, the pledge of allegiance – written by a socialist and originally recited with what looked like a hitler salute.

  • Deep South Digs

    Indicted, not tried because they knew treason wouldn’t stand up in court. It was mainly an alternative because they couldn’t connect him to the Lincoln assassination.

  • Tim

    So you’re saying the post civil war generation forgave and honored their former enemies with statues. If that’s true, show me statues of Lee and Beauregard in Northern states. Show me statues of McClelland, Meade and Grant in Southern states. Because statues of Lee and Beauregard in New Orleans have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with forgiveness and unification. It has to do only with the refusal of the South to admit defeat.

  • Tim

    Also the original pledge had no reference to God. What’s your point?

  • Tim

    Show me evidence for this claim. You’re saying the South could have won in a U.S. Court after the war what they could not win for years before the war? Nonsense.

  • Deep South Digs

    Just seems like your more concerned with allegiance to the state than with any particular ideals. How do you feel about loyalty oaths?

  • Tim

    The historical record shows that leniency had to do with Lincoln’s desire for swift reunification. Any doubt that Davis and others could not be found guilty of treason had nothing to do with the legalities of the case. There was only the speculation that a jury from Virginia would not convict due to sentimentality.

  • Deep South Digs

    So, he wasn’t found guilty. But even if he was, so what? We all know it was treason, just as we all know that the country’s founders were guilty of treason against the crown and would be hung if caught.

    One’s view of treason depends a lot on which side of it your on. I bet you also think the U.S. government has never been guilty of terrorism either.

    Look, slavery existed for 88.5 years under the American flag and 3.5 years under the confederate flag. 88.5 is greater than 3.5, so if you want to be angry at a flag……

  • Lektrikwire

    This should keep you busy for a while …

    The Post-War Jefferson Davis: The Famous Trial That Never Was
    http://tinyurl.com/nb5hg63

    The Right of Secession
    http://tinyurl.com/plqvvay

    Secession: Treasonous Act or Constitutional Choice?
    http://tinyurl.com/ou52ehl

  • Tim

    You posted three links to blog posts on a web page dedicated to Confederate apologetics. Forgive me if I’m not impressed.

    Nothing authoritative, like a peer reviewed journal or a university published book?

  • Lektrikwire

    The site belongs to a black Confederate apologist. Is your racism showing?

    Please posts links to all your other conversations based on or requiring “peer reviewed journal or a university published book.”

    Coward.

    The sources you were given provide historical sources which you can verify, if you wish to contribute more than ignorant ranting.

  • Lektrikwire

    Here’s a few — I’m not going to dig Google for you.

    Confederate Mound at Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois
    http://tinyurl.com/paydoau

    North Alton Confederate Cemetery, Illinois
    http://tinyurl.com/o67ssmu

    N.Y. Sons of Union Veterans of The Civil War — Restoring the Confederate Plot at Mount Hope Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY
    http://tinyurl.com/pbenv54

    Presidents honor Confederate graves, set aside Confederate cemetery at Arlington
    http://tinyurl.com/pyzf6hv

    Former Union Gen. introduced legislation for Confederate monument and cemetery at Arlington
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/onfdebd

    Confederate monument, Arlington
    http://tinyurl.com/ob4mfmf

    Confederate Memorial (Romney, West Virginia)
    http://tinyurl.com/pdp6s88

    Monuments of the Gettysburg Battlefield
    http://tinyurl.com/om79leg

    Of course monuments in the North and South were not erected to honor generals of their former enemy. The monuments honored the common men who fought and died. If you have time to search, you can find old newspaper clippings of Union veterans attending dedications of Confederate monuments.

    “Soldiers served as key agents in reconciliation because they had developed respect for one another in war … Veterans of both blue and gray displayed greater regard for the feelings of the other side than the non-combatants of either section.” — “Ghosts of the Confederacy” author Gaines Foster.

    Also consider the reintegration of former Confederate officers into the U.S. government and military. Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy was a former Alabama colonel. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, Confederate cavalryman, at age 61, lead the U.S. Cavalry in the Spanish-American War, including command over Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders (During the excitement of battle while leading a charge against Spanish forces, Wheeler reportedly slipped and called out “Let’s go, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run again!”). Two of my great-great-grandfathers fought in battles with Wheeler during the Civil War; a great-grand-uncle fought with him in Cuba and died.

    Maybe it’s time to recall the proclamation issued in the 1890s by the Union of Confederate Veterans: “These dead, at least, belong to us all. The last hateful memory that could divide our country is buried with them. About their graves kneels a new nation.”

    Stop the hate!

  • Tim

    And so we have arrived at name calling and thus the end this conversation.

    Peace,

    Tim

  • Lektrikwire

    You asked for evidence and it was given to you. You then upped your standard above anything you’ve previously asked for or provided in order to not have to respond to that evidence. You called the battle, then fled.

    That’s cowardice.

    You have no problem misrepresenting Confederates, but flee when called out. Perhaps you’re over your head here.

  • nickelndime

    Yo girl, LaToya Cantrell (“Cantrell” – where did that surname come from? Looks like St. Bernard Islenos roots to me, Sista) is looking for the vote in the next mayoral election. Seems that while LaToya is working the crowd, she is also promising that one of those monuments will be dedicated to Cesar Chavez. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (translated, THE HOOD) in Nadine Ramsey’s district, both Walt the Third and LaToya’s husband are gonna have a tough time getting from the St. Roch Cemetery to St. Claude Avenue. Troy and Wendell is over dere, Sista LaToya, so you mights want to throw them boyz a bone. CLAUDE HAVE MERCY!!!! Jesus H. Holy the Hispanic Christ. Have you ever seen such corruption?!
    08/07/2015 11:00 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    “nickelndime” is patient – until he is not. You guys at THE LENS are damn good. But I gots my Equalizer watch set…Let’s see.
    08/07/2015 11:09 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Oh you is good, Steve. I gots 2 give you yo props on that. In the words of Billy Joel, “Turn out the lights, don’t try to save me…” And in the words of Tina Turner, “You’re simply the best – better than all the rest…”
    Lights out.
    08/07/2015 11:16 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Light (is) back on! No one could mistake Earl Schreiber Circle in Canton for Lee Circle in New Orleans, “but Benson couldn’t help himself” – a statue – a monument – a crystal football. Eat yo heart out, Mitchell. If and when Mitchell tries to sell public space – which he will – nail him!
    08/08/2015 3:21 AM DST USA