Saturday, April 28, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 28: Confederate "heritage" in Mississippi, 2001

Antislavery fighters in Kansas, 1856

It's been almost six years since Mississippi had a statewide referendum on an issue that was essentially all about neo-Confederate hype and the Lost Cause viewpoint of history and politics. It was a vote on replacing the official state flag, which consisted of three stripes with a replica of the Confederate battle flag in the upper left corner. The proposed new flag would be very similar except it would replace the Confederate battle flag with a cluster of stars.

A native Mississippian like me could hardly fail to appreciate - or maybe "recognize" would be a better word - that there was something distinctively Mississippi about that vote. It came about through some quirk in the law that led the state Supreme Court to hold that the old flag wasn't technically the official state flag.

So there was a statewide vote held in April 2001, in which the flag was the only issue on the ballot. It's rare, maybe even unique, for a state to vote on an issue that is essentially purely symbolic. The very fact that the vote at all was being held was bad public relations for the state. The fact that the Confederate state flag won was bad PR, too. In that sense, it was a no-win decision.

Small states in the US, like small countries in the world, tend to make the news only when there's a natural disaster (we read plenty about Mississippi after the Katrina disaster, though not as much as about New Orleans) or something politically obnoxious happens. On the other hand, once the occurence is over, the national press tends to quickly forget about it.

So it's unlikely that Mississippi suffered any measurable damage from it. There weren't even any formal boycotts over it, because those are basically only meaningful for tourist events like large conventions and trade shows, and Mississippi doesn't have the kinds of facilities to attract those kind of larger events. Their main tourist draw is casino gambling, and thatbusiness isn't that subject to boycotts because it tends to be individuals or small groups coming for that. There's also some Civil War tourism, but that's also not that subject to boycotts. Are people not going to go the federally-run national park at Vicksburg because the state flag inlcudes Confederate symbolism? Not likely.

The Confederate battle flag became a symbol of white resistance to integration in the 1950s. It wasn't strongly associated with Lost Cause memorials or white-supremacist politics prior to that. But now it's about the only Confederate flag popularly known. It's sometimes erroneously called the "Stars and Bars". But the "Stars and Bars" flag was the official flag of the Confederacy; the one that's most known now is the battle flag. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion sing a song of his called "Gervais" about South Carolina's well-known Confederate flag:

An eye for an eye and we'll go blind
That's what the man said and it stuck in my mind
We've hearing the ringing off these walls today

Still flying the flag upon Gervais
Was a battle flag, now we can put it away
Given its racially-charged symbolism, it's not surprising that the vote tended to split heavily along racial lines, though African-American voter turnout there is generally lower than among whites. Of the 16 counties with a black population of 60% or more, only three (Quitman, Sharkey and Issaquena) squeaked out a majority to retain the Confederate state flag. Of the 57 counties of 50% or more white, a grand total of two (Madison and Oktibbeha) voted for the replacement flag. And in the eight counties with 50-60% black population, five voted for the Confederate state flag. It's hard to read those results as other than heavy black opposition for the Confederate-themed flag and heavy white support, with a lower proportional black turnout accounting for the pro-Confederate-symbol vote in the five of eight counties with 50-60% black population. (The Jackson Clarion-Ledger published these results from the Associated Press online - "Totals by majority race" - but the link has expired.

Of the counties where I lived in Mississippi, Clarke County voted 65% for the Confederate-themed flag, Forrest County voted 63% for it, and Hinds County (where the capital Jackson is) voted 65% against.

The campaign for the Confederate state flag was most actively supported by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which was then in the process of largely being taken of by hardline white-supremacists (not that they were exactly a human-rights group before!), and the crackpot League of the South, which actually advocates secession now, which is actually a minority position among today's neo-Confederates. The Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor group to the White Citizens Council, also pushed the Confederate-themed flag.

Sadly, the pro-new-flag side struck a high-minded, Chamber of Commerce tone. And lost. When the Confederate side was using a simple slogan with emotional resonance like, "It's mah heritage!" and the American side is saying things along the line of, "It would be much preferable for the state to project and more respectable image by selecting a more appropriate state flag", good grief!

They would have been better off to run an in-your-face campaign. They could have runs adds in heavily black areas showing the Confederate flag and photos of lynch-murders to encourage black turnout. They could have done pitches to white voters along the lines of, "Are you patriotic Americans or Confederate-loving fools who hate America?" Or use ads showing some of the more crackpot positions of the League of the South, the SCV and the White Citizen's Council and tag lines like, "Do you really want to vote for white supremacist scumbags like this?" They might still have lost. But it couldn't have been any less effective than the bland, politely and losing Chamber of Commerce approach.

What the election did do, though, is provide a public debate, directed at ordinary voters, not at historians or activists for far-right groups, that aired the issues that neo-Confederacy is really about. Here I'll give some examples from the letters-to-the-editor section of the Clarion-Ledger, with the reminder that letter-to-the-editor are often eccentric and that the Clarion-Ledger editorially supported a new flag. Tomorrow I'll mention some of the other more elaborated arguments.

One fine American patriot, Lilliane Bobbitt of Cleveland (MS) wrote in a letter published 04/10/01:

The flag with the St. Andrew's cross [the Confederate-themed state flag] was designed to commemorate all the soldiers, black and white, who died defending Mississippi from Union soldiers.

You seem to think we should discard this symbol just because blacks are unhappy with it.

I am astonished how a whole race will let themselves be manipulated by liberals and others who have no interest in them or in the welfare of our state. Until recent years there was little mention of or notice given to our state flag. But, more than 40 years ago blacks began to push, demand and boycott guided by agitators like Jesse Jackson.

Our flag is not only a symbol. A spiritual force surrounds our flag just as the American flag and the Christian cross are surrounded by a spiritual force.

No race has the right to push their selfish ends to the destruction of another culture.

Surely, you know this.
Dadgum, how could them liberals ever imagine that support for the Confederate battle flag was about "hate" instead of "heritage"? Or that it might have something to do with white racism? Where do these dang liberals git such ideas?

Cartoonist Ramsey Marshall captured the moment after the vote (from the Clarion-Ledger 04/20/01)

Also on April 10, R. Charles Van Buren of Jackson shared his thoughts on Christian respect:

According to The Clarion-Ledger (NAACP planning strategy in flag vote, Feb. 6), the Rev. Dolphus Weary, a member of the state flag advisory commission, believes we should change our state flag and justifies this with a biblical mandate, "If there's something that offends your brother, you need to move it off the table."

Now, I have heard the Rev. Weary preach and I consider him to be a brother in Christ and a good man. However, has he considered the other side? I, and many others, feel offended by the statements and attitudes of many of the flag opponents. Particularly the implication that if I support the 1894 flag or the displaying of other symbols of the confederacy, I am a racist. The many untruths and half truths put forth about theflag and great Americans such as Robert E. Lee offend me greatly.

Are not my feelings and the feelings of those who share my views just as important as anyone else's?

What can be done if people on both sides of the issue feel offended and angry?

Well, what could have been done if the issue had not been hijacked by radical's was a simple compromise for which I would have voted - replace the [Confederate-themed] 1894 flag with one of the older state flags, particularly the 1861 flag which celebrates our heritage. I am now forced to choose between two positions which I dislike. I will not give in to radical hate mongers so I will vote for the 1894 flag and pray that in the future we are offered a true compromise that will defuse this issue.
Gol-lee! You just cain't help but feel sorry for those pore white folks who're picked on by that there n-double-a-c-p, can you?

This is the kind of dissembling horse-poo that segregationists raised to an art form. Or maybe a full-blown neurosis. "Ah don't have nothin' against black folks. Some of my best friends are black. Ah just don't like them radicals like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton tellin' me whut to do." Yeah, right.

Finally, in the April 12 paper, one Tip H. Allen, Jr. of Starkville pleaded for sympathy for those sadly persecuted white people:

Flags are symbols. In the eyes of the viewer they are regarded as either good or bad symbols. The U.S. flag is perceived by most as a glorious symbol, yet it has had a darker side: It flew over slave ships in 1788 to 1808.

Supporters of the present Mississippi flag with the battle emblem view the emblem not as a symbol of hate, or slavery or segregation, but as a symbol of heritage.

Walter Lord in his book The Past That Would Not Die notes that of the 78,000 Mississippians who joined in the fight for Southern independence, only 28,000 returned. A majority of the soldiers in the Confederate army came from families who did not own slaves. Soldiers of the Confederacy regarded themselves as fighting for country, not slavery.

Significant progress in race relations in Mississippi during recent years has come from a spirit of tolerance on the part of both races. White Mississippians have recognized the importance of African-Americans preserving their heritage. There were no protest marches or threats of boycotts when scores of street names were changed to honor Dr. King or when Black History Month was established.

Now, supporters of the [Confederate-themed] 1894 flag ask for a similar display of tolerance in permitting them to honor an important part of their heritage. Alleged economic gain or political correctness should not bring down the 1894 banner.
Got that? The Confederate flag had nothing to do with racism. But the American flag does!

Is it any surprise that people who become accustomed to this kind of through-the-looking glass thinking can also believe other incredible whoppers like Dick Cheney's claims about the Iraq War?


No comments: