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.
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.”
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.