FOR THE WEEK OF JUNE 15, 2020
Confederate flag and statues mark a sharp line in the national conversation about race relations
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America is in the midst of one of the most significant shifts on race seen in decades. Protests after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd while being arrested in Minneapolis have renewed objections about Confederate statues and the stars-and-bars flag. Those symbols, critics say, glorify the Southern cause that launched the Civil War: preservation of a way of life anchored to slavery. Last week, public officials, military leaders and sports executives made moves to take down statues and ban the flag originally flown by 11 states that seceded after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and that lost the 1861-65 war between the states.
"Think of waving a red flag at a bull. That's what it's like to wave any of these symbols in front on an African-American," says sociology professor Wornie Reed of Virginia Tech, where she directs the Race and Policy Center. "The main symbol of the Southern resistance to blacks being a part of this society is the Confederate battle flag." On the other side are those who defend the banner as a cultural and historic symbol of Southern pride. "It makes people feel at home. It makes people feel like it's a part of their heritage. That's all it is," says Marlin Friel of Rocky Mount, Va.
A significant turning point came last week when NASCAR, the stock car racing organization that has celebrated Southern roots since its start in 1948, banned Confederate flags at its events and tracks. "The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry," a statement says. Other recent actions include removal of a Confederate soldier's statue by officials of Alexandria, Va.; destruction of a monument to Gen. Robert E. Lee by protesters in Montgomery, Ala.; and orders by the Navy and Marines to end the display of Confederate flags in public and work areas on bases, vessels and aircraft. "The Confederate battle flag has all too often been co-opted by violent extremist and racist groups whose divisive beliefs have no place in our Corps," says a statement by the Marines. Army leaders say they'll consider renaming 10 bases named for Confederate military leaders, such as Fort Pickett and Fort Hill in Virginia, Fort Hood and Texas and Fort Bragg in North Carolina. (Others are in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.) President Trump opposes that suggestion, tweeting last week: "My administration will not even consider the renaming of these magnificent and fabled military installations."
Most historians see Confederate leaders as traitors who tried to destroy the United States and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. They were fighting to enshrine human enslavement in the laws of a new nation. So for a country founded on the idea of human equality, honoring these men seems inappropriate to advocates for change. A counter-argument contends that these monuments are really about Southern pride, not commemorating a pro-slavery rebellion. Banning and removing Confederate symbols erases part of history. Even a descendant of slaves, author and journalist Sophia Nelson, opposes removing statues. "Remembering is powerful. Remembering, forces us to become wiser," she wrote in 2017. "Keep the statues where they are so that people can explain history to their kids. Keep them so that we can have a constructive dialogue." The Army balances its possible renaming review by saying: "Each Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a significant place in our military history. Accordingly, the historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies."
Historian says: "This is a no-brainer. Confederate leaders tried to destroy the United States and succeeded in killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. . . . For a country founded on the idea of human equality to honor these men seems particularly self-defeating." – Heather Cox Richardson, Boston College professor
NASCAR driver says: "We’re not trying to close the door on [anyone]. We’re opening the door to many others that want to be a part of this sport. . . . It has been a long time coming. … It’s a thick line we cannot cross anymore." – Darrell "Bubba" Wallace, who called for the ban
ESPN journalist says: "My forefathers lost that war. I'm glad they lost it. They were on the wrong side of history. They've all been dead for more than a century and yet I've found myself still working to correct their wrongs." – Ryan McGee, senior writer
Front Page Talking Points Archive