Still, I have a small bit of sympathy for those who are genuinely bewildered by the antagonism to a banner that, for them, represents the bravery and sacrifice of their ancestors. This is not because my family has any ties to the Confederacy. On the contrary, my great-grandfather fought in the army of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his famously destructive march to the sea. (I raised the ire of a cartoonist colleague of mine -- a proud son of Georgia -- when, during a trip to Atlanta years ago, I joked that the last time one of my relatives had been in the city he helped burn the place down.) My limited sympathy comes not from family history, but from a childhood preoccupation.
Yes, the Confederate battle flag that flies over the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia, S.C., should be taken down and sent to a museum. The state’s two most prominent Republican leaders, Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham, have finally come around to the rightness of this action, spurred on by the deaths of nine African Americans at a Charleston church who were gunned down by a 21-year-old white supremacist.
The Confederate flag has been waved defiantly by so many murderous racists over many dark decades that it long ago became an irredeemable symbol of everything that was wrong with the Old South.
I was an avid student of the Civil War from the fourth grade on. I devoured books about the conflict. I also had a big collection of toy Civil War soldiers that I set up on the floor of our family living room to reenact elaborate battles between the blue and gray figures. Miniature Confederate flags were simply part of the action, and bigger versions of the rebel flag filled out my small collection of national flags. Frankly, as a sheltered white kid growing up in Seattle far from the realities of life in the South, I thought the Confederate flag was kind of cool.
In more recent years, I’ve taken my own son and daughter on forced marches to Civil War battlefields and reenactments. And, of course, I watched every hour of Ken Burns’ exhaustive documentary about the Civil War when it first appeared on PBS. The tales of daring and tragic loss, the elaborate maneuvers of vast armies and the clash of ideals embodied by grand figures such as Lincoln and Lee have continued to hold my fascination. There is always more to learn about the war that tore America apart.
Over time, the most important thing I have learned is that, until very recently, a big piece of the story was being neglected. Classic narratives about the Civil War mentioned slavery, of course, but the conflict was almost always presented as an American tragedy, a costly fight between brothers in which the two sides were treated as equally heroic and equally just in their motives. When accounts of the Civil War are confined to events during the four years of battle, it is not hard to write the story that way. But a broader understanding of what came before the war and, even more significantly, what happened after makes it painfully obvious that one side was fighting to maintain an evil system of oppression.
The South’s resistance did not end at Appomattox. Through unconstitutional laws and deadly intimidation, white Southerners successfully rolled back most of the gains made by emancipation from slavery and effectively suppressed the political and economic aspirations of black Americans for an additional 100 years -- and they quite often committed these egregious acts while brandishing the flag that Confederate soldiers once carried into battle.
As I said, I do believe that some Southerners are sincere in their assertion that they do not see the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy. I believe them because they were raised with the same romanticized version of Civil War history as I was. Southern apologists spent decades grabbing hold of the narrative, playing up the glory of a Lost Cause and downplaying the undeniable fact that the cause, at its root, was defense of the slave system.
Now, after 150 years, it is time for Southerners who bought into the false history to surrender to the truth: Since 1865, the South’s battle flag has become too sullied by the segregationists and violent racists who appropriated it as their own to allow it to be flown near a government building in South Carolina or stand in legislative halls (as it does in Alabama’s Statehouse) or be part of a state flag (as is the case in Mississippi).