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Capitol Journal

Confederate flag represents South no more than Mexico's represents California

Imagine the outrage if they started flying the Mexican flag at California's state Capitol.

They wouldn't, but you could just hear the rationalization: It's about pride of heritage, culture and ancestry.

You know, the same stuff that many southerners say about why they fly the Confederate flag.

The Mexican flag, after all, flew over California from 1822 to 1846. Mexico ruled us for a generation after it gained independence from Spain and until white settlers mounted their Bear Flag Revolt. That revolt is symbolized today in California's state flag.

But many flags have flown over California. Maybe we should raise them at the Capitol, too, for old times' sake. There were Spanish empire flags. And even the Russian flag on the north coast, flying over Fort Ross from 1812 to 1841.

All this came to mind as I listened to southern politicians — now fewer and fewer, thankfully — defend flying the Confederate flag or hybrid versions at state Capitols, courthouses and other government edifices.

The same flag that apparently inspired the 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof — based on his many photos with it — to allegedly gun down nine African Americans in a black Charleston, S.C., church.

And how about most of those Republican presidential candidates, initially weak-kneed and ducking, scared they'd rankle white southern voters by saying something disparaging about the old rebel flags?

Kudos to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who showed more courage and smarts than most of her party's presidential contenders combined when she quickly flip-flopped and advocated hauling down the Confederate battle flag on statehouse grounds.

Elected officials in other states — Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee — have since followed her by taking steps to remove flags and other vestiges of the Confederacy.

It has always stumped me just what pride these flags conjure up in people. To many of us, they're symbols of slavery, treason and racism. What's to be proud of? Enslaving people, starting a Civil War that killed 600,000 Americans, Jim Crow segregation? The KKK and lynching?

Yes, civility and chivalry were noble, but for generations that was only for white people. Fried chicken, grits and rhubarb pie? Sure, great. But they don't call for a flag.

Admittedly, as a native Californian, I'm not fully appreciative of Dixie culture. But both my parents migrated here from the South and descended from long lines of southerners. My great-great-grandfather Skelton, from the Tennessee hill country, died fighting for the Confederacy.

I called my cousin James Lee, who still farms near Carthage, Tenn. — former Vice President Al Gore's old congressional district — to ask what I was missing about the flag.

"It doesn't mean anything to me one way or the other," he said. "I wasn't there when the war happened. The average person here can take it or leave it. Most people think [the controversy] is pretty idiotic."

He added this observation, probably thinking of our ancestor: "A lot of those southern boys who went to war had never been away from home more than 10 miles. It wasn't about slavery. They were protecting their homes. They didn't want Yankees coming down and burning their houses and raping their women. You know how it is in war."

At any rate, Confederate flags don't symbolize most of today's South. They're depicting a false image. To do the region justice, they should be lowered, folded and packed away in museums or closets.

California, of course, can't be too smug. We haven't always been a beacon of tolerance.

This state once had a long, horrible history of anti-Asian discrimination. Japanese immigrants were barred from owning property. Chinese immigration was prohibited, period.

A half-century ago, Californians voted overwhelmingly to continue racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. Ronald Reagan, that GOP icon, strongly supported the notion. Both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts ruled it unconstitutional.

Last year, the mother of state Sen. Isadore Hall (D-Compton) visited the Capitol and was shocked to see Confederate flags being sold in the gift shop. An African American, she grew up in then-segregated Texas. Hall's father was a light-skinned African American — a Creole — who was raised in Louisiana and fled the state after being nearly beaten to death for dating a black girl.

"They thought he was white and didn't allow white people to date black people," Hall says. "This is America, and you can date whoever you want to date."

Incensed that "emblems inciting racism" were being sold in California's Capitol, Hall introduced a bill to ban it. The measure passed overwhelmingly — only three Republicans voted "no" — and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

"There's no place for a Confederate flag in any public building in California," Hall says. "Same with a swastika. It incites hatred and fear. We were never part of the Confederacy."

In fact, the South tried to extend slavery to Southern California as a condition of statehood. But at a state constitutional convention in 1849, delegates voted unanimously to outlaw slavery. And California was admitted to the union as a free state in 1850.

At the time, Southern California was heavily Latino.

Today, it would make as much sense to fly the Mexican flag at the California Capitol as it does to display the Confederate banner at southern statehouses: no sense.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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