Flag Burning 

Like it or not, the swastika is easier to defend than the Rebel flag

Like it or not, the swastika is easier to defend than the Rebel flag

Swastikas adorned my grandfather’s living room. (Now there’s a statement that demands explanation.) The symbols decorated the spines of an old set of brown volumes by Rudyard Kipling that sat on my book-collecting grandfather’s shelves. The editions were published before 1920, when the swastika was still identified as a mystical symbol from ancient India for well-being and harmony.

Nowadays, you probably couldn’t find one in 500 people who’d associate the swastika with its original meaning. Which is why I’m just as glad one of my cousins inherited the Kipling set and I wound up with the collected speeches of William Jennings Bryan.

I’d be uncomfortable displaying a symbol identified with Nazism, racial hatred, and genocide, even though I knew it was meant to convey something else entirely and even though few, if any, visitors would likely be offended, given the context. I’d be put off simply by the knowledge that the sign of the swastika caused—and still causes—so much pain.

Maybe that’s a point those who advocate the continued flying of the Confederate battle flag in official places should remember. It’s not just what they intend for the symbol to mean; it’s what it means in the eyes of so many others. The Rebel banner, which keeps turning up like Banquo’s ghost to haunt everything from tourism campaigns to presidential races, fluttered into the sports world again last week. At the urging of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NCAA began deliberating whether to relocate future men’s and women’s basketball championships scheduled for Georgia—whose state flag includes the old Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.

The collegiate sports organization had established a precedent in South Carolina, where the Rebel flag flew over the state Capitol. There, the NCAA threatened to withhold events from the state unless the flag was moved. Other sports groups— including the New York Knicks, who trained in the Palmetto State—took their business elsewhere. This summer, the Confederate emblem finally was transferred to a less conspicuous spot.

In Georgia, however, it appears the NCAA will let offending flags fly. That would not be a business mistake. But it would represent an abdication of moral authority. It would be doing the wrong thing. Some among our punditocracy suggest the NCAA should avoid political and social issues (as if!). Following that logic, morals should be restricted to the moralizers. And—make no mistake—this is a moral concern.

For many whites, certainly, the issue is not sanctioning a universal symbol of racism but agreement about that symbol’s very meaning. To them, the Confederate flag merely reflects pride in a Southern heritage. Why, they argue, should they forfeit their most recognizable symbol because the Klan and other hate groups adopted it? Why should they be forced to give it up because most blacks interpret that symbol differently?

These questions might hold more validity had the Rebel flag’s origin been as innocuous as that of the swastika. And, of course, if buzzards’ butts were jukeboxes, music would fill the skies. To defend the use of the Confederate flag by public institutions, you must believe—as its advocates stoutly do—that the late Wah of Nawthun Aggression was all about “states’ rights” and none about the peculiar institution of chattel slavery. Unfortunately, that’s a little like believing that McDonald’s is all about making hamburgers instead of making money.

The whomperjawed, stubborn states’ rights notion begs the obvious, crucial question: Which right, exactly, was it that the Southern states were passionate enough to secede and fight over? (Hint: It wasn’t low tariff rates.)

In a 140-year-old newspaper at the State Archives, there’s a revealing text of a stump speech made on the eve of the war by a politician named John Netherland. Addressing a crowd in Upper East Tennessee, where the people were lily white, dirt poor, and resolutely anti-secessionist, he thundered, “Let those people who own Negroes fight to protect them!” The crowd applauded, understanding the speaker’s meaning: They had no economic or social stake in preserving slavery.

Even more damning to the argument that the Rebel flag was not the symbolic guardian of white supremacy is its relatively recent resurrection. Georgia’s flag did not incorporate the Stars and Bars, nor was the Confederate banner seen again over South Carolina’s Capitol, until nearly a century after the Civil War. By an amazing coincidence, the Rebel emblem resurfaced around the time the federal government began enforcing integration.

Whites in Georgia and South Carolina knew what their flags said to Washington: “We defy you.” But blacks could also plainly read the message directed at them: “We still own you.”

I saw that message affirmed a few years ago, at a Vanderbilt-Ole Miss football game in Nashville. Earlier that week, Carlos Thomas, Vandy’s fullback who was black and a de facto Mississippian (he hailed from Memphis), was asked by a reporter to share his thoughts on the Rebel flag. He hated it, he said. Seeing it waved only made him want to play even harder.

After his comments appeared in the media, Thomas became a marked man. That Saturday, he was hounded mercilessly by the throng of visitors. Every time he was tackled, regardless of the significance of the play, the Rebel fans whooped and taunted and furiously waved their Rebel flags.

“They’d chant, ‘Car-los! Car-los!í’ ” recalls Thomas, who earned a doctorate and now works with athletes at LSU. “It was ‘Nigger this, nigger that.’ I had drinks thrown on me. There seemed like ten million thousand Confederate flags.”

On that day, the flag’s true colors showed. It wasn’t simply a symbol of school pride. It was a weapon. I have come to hate that damned flag. I hate what it stands for. What it stands for is not the right to live freely but just the opposite: the power to subjugate others.

As a redneck Southerner, I am not apologetic to carry some genes of slaveholder ancestors. (Ironically, that gives me a more common bond with millions of African Americans who have a similar if unwelcome inheritance.) But I would apologize for the institutions of the past that still plague those with whom I share the present.

A good start on a national apology would be to ensure that one of those institutions, the Confederate flag, never again represents a state or a town or a public school.

If you want to display a Rebel banner on your front license plate or rear windshield, or tattoo a swastika onto your forehead, go on and exercise your rights. If you want to put up a goofy Rebel statue on your property next to the interstate, that’s your private business. But at least go into it knowing what the flag historically represented, and what it represents to others now.

Eventually, the University of Mississippi told fans not to bring their flags into its stadium. Perhaps the school was acting on principle. Perhaps it was merely pursuing naked self-interest, recognizing that the flag of slavery times made recruiting black athletes a tad problematic.

Since the result is the same, either motivation is fine. After all, it was self-interest, in response to boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins, that finally led stores to serve white and black customers equally. So I hope the NCAA, the SCLC, the Black Coaches Association, individual athletes, and whoever else cares to join will use whatever leverage they have to persuade Georgians to redesign their flag and South Carolinians to get rid of theirs.

Meantime, if anyone decides to go to Columbia, yank that miserable flag down from its pole and set it afire. I hope they’ll call me first. I’ll spring for the matches.

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