Suddenly confronted with the enduring realities of racism in our time, white Americans are looking back at the history we have too often forgotten – and the ways that our amnesia has distorted the nation’s culture. Now we have arrived at a time for remembrance, and reckoning.
Perhaps the most damning proof of our neglect over the past century or more are the flags, monuments and other remnants of the old Confederacy displayed all over the country. While the pressure of the moment is prompting institutions as diverse as universities, city governments and even NASCAR to remove those stains from our public life, the usual suspects are defending them, led by President Donald Trump, the clown who proclaims his superiority to Abraham Lincoln.
Only this president, with his strangely un-American affinities, could so brazenly uphold the emblems of slavery, segregation and treason. And, of course, he claims to be standing for American civic and military traditions. Yet it should be obvious that to raise the banner of secession has always meant rejecting patriotism – and has never meant anything else.
We should have seen that truth five years ago, when neo-Nazi Dylann Roof displayed Confederate banners before he walked into a church in Charleston, SC, to murder defenseless black congregants. In the same demented video, Roof desecrated a Stars and Stripes, declaring his hatred for the American flag.
Long after the Civil War ended, the Confederacy was not much commemorated outside local cemeteries and regional museums. Robert E. Lee, a reluctant but revered Confederate hero, was spared from ignominy as a traitor – and in turn had declined to fetishize the Stars and Bars, which was originally the battle flag of his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had believed it “wiser … not to keep open the sores of war.”
But with the advent of the modern civil rights movement, white supremacists ignored Lee’s wisdom and, as they embarked on a campaign of racial terror in the 1930s and 1940s, found powerful allies among the Nazi-affiliated leaders of the German American Bund. Towering crosses burned next to swastika banners at rallies where the speakers cursed President Franklin Roosevelt and praised Hitler.
As demands for black civil rights grew after the Second World War, Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and the “uptown Klan” known as the White Citizens Councils made the Confederate flag their standard. After the White Citizens Councils fell into disgrace during the 1960s, they eventually returned as the Council of Conservative Citizens – a hate group that has embarrassed many Republican politicians caught pandering to its leaders. The CCC festoons its chapters with the Dixie flag, as does the neo-Confederate League of the South, a revanchist group that still openly advocates secession. So do racist and anti-Semitic organizations all over the internet.
Stormfront, the notorious neo-Nazi website, continues to promote the mythology of the Southern cause. And owing to the influence of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, the Confederate flag has long been substituted for Nazi banners in “white nationalist” demonstrations in Europe – where the symbols of the Third Reich are broadly outlawed.
Not every American who has displayed the Dixie flag endorses the treason and bigotry that it now represents to so many other Americans. There have been sincere patriots who insist that it merely represents the bravery of their ancestors.
But that flag and the racist treason it represented are utterly irreconcilable with American patriotism. We have witnessed over and over again, in recent days and decades past, how the enemies of democracy and the exponents of bigotry rallied behind it. Every decent American ought to acknowledge that inescapable reality.