June 5, 2008

Confederate flag flap in Tampa

The local Sons of Confederate Veterans has acquired a permit to raise a huge Confederate battle flag near a major highway intersection in Hillsborough County. Tampa hasn't had such an embarrassing outbreak of nationally-visible racism for almost two decades. The last time you could sense a countywide wince was when the all-white, all-male sponsor of Gasparilla (Ye Mystic Krewe) embarrassed the city before the 1991 Super Bowl.

From the news reports, it looks like the flag-raising group has acquired the proper permits, and I suspect there is nothing that the county can do to bar them from doing something this stupid. Yes, they probably have the right to fly the flag, but it will not help the image of the city one whit.

There's a lot of myth surrounding the use of the flag, starting with the false claim that there was a consistent and uniform use of the flag between the end of the Civil War and the end of WW2. Let's take one mistaken gentleman from 2000, speaking of the controversy that year in South Carolina:

The Confederate flag that flies over the capitol of this state was flown for over a century in defense of slavery and segregation.

Thank you for playing U.S. history trivia, former Senator Bradley, but you're wrong. According to John Coski, the battle flag was not generally used in any political sense, nor was it incorporated into Southern state symbols, until the renascence of Southern racist intransigence. The battle flag popped up in the political life of the Dixiecrats in 1948, apparently the Dixiecrat use of the battle flag was not uniformly welcomed by the various Confederate heritage groups. The battle flag was then incorporated into state flags in the 1950s with the resistance to school desegregation and civil rights in general. The use of the flag between 1948 and at least 1970 was clearly tied closely to resistance to civil rights, so that federal judges allowed schools to restrict students' free-speech rights if convinced that wearing the battle flag during desegregation would provide bona fide disruptions.

At this point, the battle flag has multiple meanings, and anyone commenting on the current controversy in Tampa would be wise to acknowledge those multiple meanings. Regardless of the uses of the battle flag before 1948, its modern history is intimately tied up in postwar resistance to civil rights. I suspect few are aware of that history, including most of the late adolescents who go around with the battle flag on vehicle bumpers and plenty of those who are going to rail against the huge flag in my county. I forget who had probably the best comment on displays of the Confederate battle flag, and I've searched for the comment, but in vain. So if you know who said this, please speak up in comments: "If they want to celebrate their defeat, let them."

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Posted in Education policy on June 5, 2008 6:48 PM |