This summer several news items dominated the country. One, of course, was the shooting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by Dylann Roof in which nine people were killed. While Fox News and others initially questioned whether this was part of the “war on Christianity,” it soon became clear from his own confession, photographs and Facebook posts that Dylann Roof didn’t have a problem with Christians, but rather with African Americans. The rebel flag was apparently a favorite symbol for him.
What followed was interesting and, to me, unexpected. I anticipated the usual cries for gun control and counter-cries for more people to bear arms – and there was some of that. What quickly became the focus, however, was what is commonly called the “rebel flag.” Demands to “bring it down,” soon became a surprising national consensus.
It’s actually a misnomer to call any particular flag “the” rebel flag because there were many. There were three official national flags of the confederacy, the final two of which incorporated, as a part, what we refer to as the “rebel flag.” The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia was the same design, but was square. The modern flag most closely resembles the Second Confederate Navy Jack, though it features a slightly lighter blue.
As recently as early July of this year, a CNN poll found that 57% of Americans see the flag as a symbol of southern pride, not of racism. In the south, however, a full 75% of whites see it as southern pride, while an equal 75% of blacks see it as racist. You can read more results from the poll here.
There is also a very good recent LA Times article discussing the various flags and an interesting quote by the designer of one version that included the now common symbol in its corner. William T. Thompson is quoted from his own writings as having said, “The white rectangle symbolizes the supremacy of the white man. As a people we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” It sounds a little more like hate than heritage to my reading.
In the years since the civil war, the flag has been used by various groups. The Ku Klux Klan kept it alive for many years. In the 1950s and 1960s, as many people in the south resisted civil rights, the flag flew places it hadn’t appeared in 100 years. Mississippi added it to their flag during that era, as did Georgia. In 1965, just after standing in the doorway to the University of Alabama to protest the admission of the first African-American student, George Wallace had the flag raised at the capitol in Montgomery. I’ve seen it on the streets of Knoxville when the neo-Nazi’s held their rally. It’s hard to say none of that had to do with race.
Jack Neely’s article from this summer is a must read on the topic. In “Was the South Ever Confederate, Anyway?,” he makes a number of interesting points. For starters, the south has had an African and European population for about four hundred years – four of which it was known as the CSA. Should that 1% of our history form our entire identity? Additionally, he notes that the black population had no voice in the matter (40% of the southern population at the time of the Civil War), nor did women. Among the men who voted in Tennessee a full 30% voted not to secede. It’s too good an article to miss. Take a few minutes and read it.
Recently, when I wrote about the “Open Streets” event, I mentioned that even Mobile, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi had held such events. I acknowledged that it surprised me a bit to find so many southern cities being a somewhat progressive. This prompted a reader to say, “Its a shame and rather boorish, but not “surprising” you feel the need to put down the South. Perhaps, surprisingly you discovered the South isn’t as backwards as you thought? Ever been to New Orleans, Atlanta, Asheville, Charlotte…. Why the negativity and the need to put down your home?” So, the simple expression of surprise that the south would be so progressive caused someone to question my southern credentials. We’re a bit touchy these days.
I will tell you a bit about my southern credentials – and it includes some information many of you will find surprising and a good dose of information I find embarrassing. I’m part Creek Indian, so if you go with that branch, my family has been in the south for about a thousand years or more. If you stick to my European roots, they only run back as far as the early 1600s (Richard Pace, Jamestown, VA) or the early 1800s, depending on the branch. I had family members who owned slaves, though the majority didn’t. I had more ancestors who fought for the south, though some fought for the north in the Civil War.
I was born and lived my first 21 years in Alabama. For 12 of those 21 years, George Wallace was governor. My first political memory is staying up late in 1968 watching presidential returns and hoping he would win the White House (He won nearly 10,000,000 votes, swept the south, probably cost Humphrey the election and signaled the end of the Democratic Party’s dominance of southern politics.) I grew up going on elementary school field trips to the capitol of the Confederacy in Montgomery.
In 1972, after Wallace was shot by Aurthur Bremer, I was in the crowd at the Montgomery airport when he returned to the state in his wheel chair. The first time my photograph was in the newspaper was at a George Wallace Labor Day rally in 1975. I was holding a 3′ X 5′ – wait for it – that’s right – rebel flag. My friend and I hoisted it and Mr. Wallace saluted it. Shocked? I had a rebel tag on my car and a rebel patch on my cowboy hat. It’s hard to get more southern.
It was in 1976, at age 17, that I took the rebel tag off my car, telling my father I would soon be in college and the flag no longer reflected who I was. I was under the influence of Bob Dylan, had traveled, had begun to read more widely and I’d learned that George Wallace’s rhetoric about the “working man” really meant “white man.” I’d begun the journey toward becoming a different person. I didn’t stop loving the south. Hell, I didn’t even stop loving Lynyrd Skynyrd. But my view of the world had expanded.
Which brings me back to this summer. A group paraded through downtown Knoxville on July 16 with their rebel flags. I happened to be walking down Gay Street when they hit. I had friends in from Florida and it was embarrassing. My friend Jonathan told me that passersby hurled insults in the direction of the vehicles as they passed. He later sent me a link to this article, which was interesting, in that it connected many of the dots.
It turns out that Matthew Heimbach, also known as “The Little Fuhrer,” the founder of the Traditionalist Youth Network, received a call from the FBI after they learned Dylann Roof had become obsessed with online racist writings. While Heimbach condemned the violence, it was his kind of racial vitriol that Dylann had been consuming before the shooting. Among other things, Hembach advocates ethnically pure states within the US. He feels Jews are a major part of the problem in America today.
What does this have to do with Knoxville? Apparently Heimbach, an Ohio resident, has been in Knoxville at least twice in the recent past. He was the leader of the protest at Pride Day and he was the leader of the more recent rebel flag parade through Knoxville. He must like us – or feel we need his brand of salvation.
But, of course, everyone waving a rebel flag recently isn’t from outside our area. We have our own “heritage” advocates. I was recently added (without my consent) to a Facebook group called The New Confederate Revolution 2, which is apparently based in Crossville and includes at least one member (who added me) who has no concept of my world view. They have nearly 1200 members. Still, when you see the flag waving around town, it isn’t necessarily us.
So, what of the flag? For me the reality that it is a favored symbol of the Klan, neo-Nazis, segregationists and Dylann Roof is enough reason to not need it in my life. The fact that it was born out of explicit racism only underscores the sentiment. Does that mean I’m not southern? I think y’all would have a hard time arguing that.