This past week, I did an interview with IJReview’s Justen Charters regarding the Southern Cross. My full feelings on the topic did not make it into the article, as is wont to happen when you deal with the press. To Justen’s credit, the edits were for brevity and were not made by him. I still intended on doing a follow-up post on my feelings regarding the Southern Cross.
Then, Facebook happened. Boy, oh, boy, did it happen. I’ve seen idiots on both sides of this debate. There are people who insist the Civil War had little to do with slavery, and there are people who are defacing Confederate memorials and pushing for an actual government ban on the Confederate flag, akin to what the German government has in place for Nazi memorabilia. The worst part is, both sides of the debate are equally ignorant.
The big thing I want to reiterate from the IJReview interview is that I still believe at my heart that the debate on the Southern Cross is being fanned by the media to distract from the real issue at hand: a deranged individual, one part sociopath and one part terrorist, went into a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people in cold blood with the intent of starting a race war. Rather than actually address this and defuse the situation, we’re encouraging it with the debate over the Southern Cross. Others are using it as an excuse to dance upon the still warm bodies of the dead to promote gun control. I can count on one hand the number of reasoned responses to the shooting that I have seen. The most intelligent people I have witnessed are staying out of the debate entirely to focus on more pressing issues, such as this or this.
I’m going to go all in and buy into the distraction. Why? Simple: I want to get my thoughts on the matter off my plate to correct grievous factual errors I have seen on both sides of the debate, and hopefully drive some of those debating away from this debate to focus on other things.
WHY THE PRO-SOUTHERN CROSS SIDE IS WRONG
It’s a recurring theme, particularly in red states, that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not about slavery or white supremacy. It’s a good soundbyte on the surface.
It’s also patently false.
On March 21st, 1861 (twenty-one days before the Civil War was initiated by the Confederacy with the attack on Fort Sumter), Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens gave a speech in Savannah, Georgia, which came to be known as the Cornerstone Speech. During the course of the Cornerstone Speech, Vice President Stephens said the following (emphasis mine):
The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
As you can clearly see, the Confederate States of America were founded from the onset on the basis of white supremacy and of slavery being an inherent right. You can read the full text of the speech here.
It is true that the economy of slavery was a factor in the Civil War. The thing is, you did not find white slaves in the South. White indentured servants were more often than not found in the North. Race definitely played a part in the Confederacy’s position.
One of the biggest misconceptions is “states rights” being a factor. Taken out of context, this is a reasonable stance to hold. When you factor in that the rights that the Confederacy were battling with the Union over was the right to keep slaves, to override Union abolitionist laws, and forbidding the westward expansion of slavery, then it’s not so rosy of a concept.
It was part of an overall push to gradually phase out slavery, starting with the Anti-Slavery Act of 1807. Contrary to pro-Confederate revisionist belief, Abraham Lincoln had always been opposed to slavery, but he was not an abolitionist in the sense of freeing the slaves and granting them citizenship. He also did not want to do it as an immediate shock, for fear of a civil war breaking out. Lincoln planned on continuing the gradual phase-out, and the South did not take kindly to that. They viewed that as an overreach of federal power.
It is true that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in Confederate territories. That was a war strategy. The hope was to encourage slaves to rise up and fight against Confederate forces, and encouraged freed slaves to enlist in the Union Army. Why did it not apply to states like Kentucky, who were allied with the Union and still held slaves? Simple: to alienate them would add fuel to the Confederate fire.
To close out this section, after the end of the Civil War, the Southern Cross faded away into obscurity. It made its return in the 1920s, with the Ku Klux Klan using it as a symbol. It truly reentered the public eye in 1948, when Strom Thurmond ran for President on a pro-segregation platform. South Carolina then raised it over the state capital in 1961 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, and, according to some, as a defiant gesture against the Civil Rights Movement.
WHY THE ANTI-SOUTHERN CROSS SIDE IS WRONG
First and foremost, the anti-Southern Cross side is wrong in calling it “the Confederate flag.” Note that I have not called it that once throughout this piece. I have called it the Southern Cross. Here is a website that breaks down the flags of the Confederacy. The Stars and Bars was the official flag from 1861 until 1863. This looked too much like the Union Stars and Stripes, so the Southern Cross (proper name: the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia) was concocted for troop identification on the battlefield. The second Confederate flag, the Stainless Banner, was adopted in 1863, which placed the Southern Cross in the upper-left hand corner. In 1865, shortly before the collapse of the Confederacy, the Bloodstained Banner, which took the Stainless Banner and added a red bar along the right side, was adopted.
What is popularly referred to as “the Confederate flag” is actually the Confederate Naval Jack, adopted in 1863 for the Confederate Navy. Unlike the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederate Naval Jack is standard flag length. This has become the most popular medium for the Southern Cross.
Another department where the anti-Southern Cross side gets it wrong is that they do not understand that symbols are rarely universal. There are a few exceptions. One of the most popular arguments against the Southern Cross is that it is reminiscent of the Nazi Germany flag and swastika.
The problem with that comparison is context. In the Civil War, both sides were guilty of atrocities. War was one giant, ongoing atrocity, a race to see which side would cave first. Defenders of the Union are quick to forget Sherman’s March to the Sea, amongst other Union actions. All things considered, given the time context, the enslavement of Africans was one atrocity in a whirlwind of atrocity, in a world that was calloused to and embraced atrocity.
In comparison, by the time Adolf Hitler rose to power, the world had become more “civilized.” Genocides were greatly frowned upon worldwide at this point, so to revert to a medieval fashion of murder and kill over six million Jews took the atrocity level to a point where the swastika, once used as a peaceful symbol, would forever be associated with the Nazi Party and its heinous acts.
To compare the two may make sense, but one crossed the historical atrocity threshold while one did not. This leaves the Southern Cross open to some level of interpretation. Many Southerners who hold no racial bias believe it to be a symbol of sovereignty and rebellion. At the end of the day, that is exactly what the Confederacy did: rebel. Most feel the Confederacy were certainly not justified in their rebellion, but those who embrace the Southern Cross are not focused on the motivations, but on the actions. This explanation will not resonate with many in the black community, due to generation upon generation suffering from the actions of bigots past.
Personally, I attempt to approach things with an open mind and remain mindful of context. I have many friends who believe in the redefined definition of the Southern Cross. None of them have been racist toward me. I do not get offended when they fly the Southern Cross. In fact, for a period of three years, I lived with a roommate who flew the Southern Cross in our home with the word “Redneck” superimposed across it. Never once did I feel he was racist or that he harbored any ill will towards me due to my skin color.
The only time I get frustrated is when those who fly the Southern Cross refuse to take in the entirety of the history behind it. To redefine the symbol is fine. To blatantly lie and revise history to better suit one’s conscience is wholly unacceptable. One can take pride in the new definition of the Southern Cross, acknowledge its checkered past, and still not be a racist.
At the same time, there are pushes to remove the Southern Cross from circulation, to stop selling anything with the Southern Cross on it, and from government buildings. I can personally agree that the Southern Cross would best be left to fly over Civil War monuments and not over buildings where the government does business, but to erase the Southern Cross from retail when you can still purchase an SS flag or a Che Guevara flag reeks of caving to popular opinion rather than any sort of moral stand.
Furthermore, there are people defacing Confederate Civil War monuments in an attempt to make their point. Really? Vandalism? That’s your way of winning hearts and minds? Let me tell you what that will do: that will get the pro-Southern Cross flag crowd to cling tighter to it and will perpetuate the stereotype maintained by racists that the black community is full of criminals, incapable of civil discussion. You don’t defeat stereotypes by acting them out. You defeat them by not engaging in that behavior.
It’s also indicative of this troubling trend in society that we have a “right” to “feel comfortable.” News flash: free speech is uncomfortable. You can speak out against something you don’t like all you like. At the end of the day, the people you don’t like? They have a right to free speech, as well. There is not one single mention in the Constitution about the right of feeling comfortable. Don’t believe me? Feel free to look for yourself.
The final criticism for this section: if you think that it was a flag that drove a mentally unstable racist to kill nine people, then you are just as much of an idiot as the person who thinks that a gun compelled him to kill those people. If you adhere to this asinine notion, then you are a mouth-breathing window licker. Full stop. End of discussion.
Slavery and white supremacy were primary motivations in the Civil War, the Southern Cross was not in and of itself the Confederate flag, and both sides are filled to the brim with stupid and woefully ignorant people, oblivious to these facts.
This is two hours of writing and research I will never get back, time that I could have spent editing my upcoming novel. At the end of the day, I cannot abide ignorance on either side. The past couple of weeks have been highly informative of how badly our education system is failing, and has been failing. Thankfully, in the age of information, there are countless sources to educate yourself, and there are people like me who really don’t know when to shut up and let the people quibble amongst themselves.
I’m sure I’ll get strenuous objections from both sides on this piece. Honestly? I don’t care. I’m about the facts. I really don’t give a damn if the truth offends one’s sensibilities. That’s life. That’s free speech. That’s debate.
Get used to it.
Hopefully, we can all shut the hell up about the Southern Cross now and focus on issues that matter.
Featured image courtesy of Asia Times.