At noon on July 1, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House Dome. Within minutes, a square version was raised on a 30-foot pole behind the Confederate Soldier Monument before a crowd of onlookers representing both sides of this long and acrimonious dispute. Downtown Columbia streets were blocked off, and dozens if not hundreds of police were on hand in case flag supporters waving Confederate banners and NAACP supporters bearing signs with the single word SHAME decided to do more than hurl invective at one another. Going from reports by others (due to work obligations I was not there in person) it was an ugly and potentially dangerous spectacle, and it is probably just as well that the police were out in force as abhorrent as I would find that description in most contexts. Just one person was arrested, and tensions that could easily have erupted into violence were kept under control.
On July 4, I took a drive through downtown Columbia to the State House to see the flag's new location, and assess for myself some of the charges that have been flying around. In particular, I wanted to evaluate the claim by those who favor the NAACP's continuing its tourism boycott of South Carolina that (as one person put it) "the flag is off the Dome and in our faces," i.e., in a more visible location than before. July 4 was an exceptionally good day for such a venture, because with all government offices and most businesses closed for the holiday, traffic was light and few people were around.
I approached the State House driving south on North Main. From this perspective the State House in clearly visible in the distance. You can see flags atop the building without being able to distinguish them; it only becomes possible to see that the Confederate flag is no longer there about halfway across the downtown area. Soon I was coming up on the famous or infamous corner of Gervais and North Main facing the State House steps.
The truth is, the new Confederate flag is not that prominent in its new location, which is, after all, behind and not in front of the much taller Confederate Soldier Monument. You can see it from a car in the North Main portion of the intersection if the wind is blowing and if you are looking in the right place but not otherwise. The flag is visible from an angle, e.g., from Gervais Street on either side of the stoplight, or to a person standing on one of the crosswalks on either side of North Main again, if you look. Moreover, the State House grounds are fairly woodsy. Further down Gervais Street, the main east-west corridor north of the State House, the flag is largely concealed by trees this time of the year. From elsewhere on the grounds it is not visible at all. The State House itself or trees are in the way.
This should serve to quiet those who complain that the Confederate flag is "more visible than ever," or as one private critic of a previous article of mine put it, "the view was better on the Dome!" On the contrary, the flag is visible only to onlookers in the immediate vicinity: the Gervais-Main intersection and the large promenade leading from there to the State House steps. And during the regular workweek, most of the people filling the crowded streets and sidewalks will be too busy to bother much with a flag flapping 30 feet overhead.
Moreover, it ought to become clear to anyone touring the State House grounds that once the General Assembly had decided to move the flag, the Confederate Soldier Monument was the logical place to put it. The State House grounds in Columbia provide a gold mine of South Carolina history, including not just this state's role in the War Between the States but the full range of the state's history from early beginnings up through the present. The figures honored here include Richard Richardson, who was born in 1704 and became Brigadier General of the Militia for South Carolina in the Revolutionary War. Captured by the British in 1780, he fell seriously ill and died later that year, having given his life in the cause of independence for his countrymen. There is, obviously, the Wade Hampton Memorial, and it is clear from the dates when Wade Hampton was governor during the late Reconstruction period that putting the Confederate flag there, as Governor Jim Hodges had proposed, would not have been historically appropriate. There is a monument to the women of the Confederacy without a hint of radical feminism (true Southron belles are ladies, after all). Finally, there is a statue honoring none other than Senator Strom Thurmond, whose life has spanned a century of change.
The plain truth is, the Confederate flag belongs on these grounds somewhere, if not on the Dome. It's called respect for historical accuracy, whether one likes all the details of this history or not. The Confederate flag, in its new location, is most certainly not in a "position of sovereignty," any more than, e.g., the Wade Hampton memorial is.
This brings us to some general points worth making again, however often they have been made before. More and more in this age of political correctness, respect for history and for truth itself is taking a back seat to feelings, especially the feelings of those who arrogate for themselves the mantle of victimhood and whatever moral superiority they believe comes with this. Virtually every argument by an NAACP member for removing the Confederate flag completely from State House grounds begins with, "I find the Confederate flag offensive…" It then may proceed to slavery, or to race hatred, and to the politically correct but historically false view that the War Between the States was fought over slavery. The issue ought to be irrelevant since the institution hasn't existed for 135 years, and blaming whatever problems blacks have today on slavery is silly. But let's dwell on it a minute. The South did not initially secede to preserve slavery but as a last-resort protest over Northern-imposed tariffs and other increasingly oppressive economic policies, policies the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had pledged to continue. Likewise, the North did not go to war to eliminate slavery but to preserve the Union. Lincoln, it is true, had no love for slavery, but neither did he accept the equality of the races all one has to do is read his own words on the subject. Moreover, it is now clear that there were regiments of blacks who fought and died for the Confederacy. The Confederate Army also made room for Indians who had good reason to hate the Lincoln Administration, since brutal campaigns of butchery waged against entire tribes were carried out under Lincoln's watch. Unfortunately, today's historians have no use for such facts, since they do not fit with currently fashionable ideology.
When evaluating the causes of that disastrous war, it is useful to remember the truism that histories of wars are always written by the victors, not the vanquished. The victors automatically portray themselves as heroes; the vanquished are portrayed as traitors and villains. Had the original 13 colonies lost the Revolutionary War and remained under British domination, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and those who signed the Declaration of Independence would be remembered much as we are told to remember Jefferson Davis and his cohorts. All would have been tried and imprisoned if not executed for treason.
And speaking of fashionable ideology, it is useful to note that when we talked about the Confederate flag atop of the State House Dome, we were talking about an object that was barely noticed until around ten years ago. This was also the time political correctness reared its ugly head both on college and university campuses and in the legal system. The coincidence in time is too much to be coincidence in fact. That movement came about because 1960s-nurtured leftist radicals, of whatever race, were gradually rising to power, and have continued this rise throughout the 1990s. Their fundamentally totalitarian mindset should be clear to all that have followed their role in the events of the past nine years, whether on college campuses or regarding Confederate symbols. The aim is thought control. Striving for "harmony," or "resolving issues," in this view, means satisfying leftist groups. The NAACP became a prime example, and is carrying its campaign to Georgia and Mississippi (both of which incorporate Confederate symbols into their state flags) as well as Texas. In the latter case, Gov. George W. Bush recently had two plaques bearing Confederate symbols removed from the state Supreme Court building in Austin in response to NAACP demands. The organization plans to have a bill introduced early in 2001 which would ban all Confederate symbols from public schools.
Thought control efforts are made in various ways. Most whites who are not left-liberals find the NAACP intimidating, because they have learned that criticisms of "black leaders" are almost invariably met with allegations of racism. There is, however, nothing inherently racial about the leftist strategy which is about ideology, not race. Leftist groups of all stripes play the character assassination game. In one recent case, a fellow employee where I work, upon reading an article of mine critical of the NAACP, emailed not me but someone whom, had he chosen, could easily have orchestrated my being fired. This kind of gesture is not uncommon; any number of university professors who haven't towed the line have had their careers sabotaged, and there is no way of knowing how many others have been threatened or suffered close calls. And when one person in an organization becomes a public pariah, the rest get the message. They censor themselves, having learned that today's ideological debates are not really debates at all but demands, with one side expected to make all the concessions whether in the name of "social justice," "reparations," or what-have-you. The demanders learn they can be as extreme as they want, because it is the rare person who will call them onto the carpet.
It is one of the benefits of the Confederate flag compromise measure, in this writer's view, that it prevented the NAACP from assuming dictatorial control over where the flag ended up, and ensured that it would be in a place that accurately reflected its role in history. Naturally, NAACP loyalists are miffed, big time. Hence the continuation of the boycott.
Now who are the real extremists?
While those who today defend Confederate symbols in any form or fashion are routinely labeled extremists by their enemies and in the politically correct media, it is the mark of a real extremist to assume an automatic moral high ground and be unwilling to negotiate, no matter what. "Keeping the flag on the State House grounds," emailed one of my correspondents, "was never negotiable." Real extremists make demands, and expect obedience or else. When they say "Jump!" they expect the response "How high?" For all their appeals to "tolerance" they are intolerant of dissent. They are convinced of the absolute rightness of their stance and the blindness or malice of their critics.
The NAACP in its present form surely qualifies as an extremist group in this sense, and one that hardly speaks or ought to speak for the entire black community. (For an alternative to the NAACP's leftism one may go to http://www.issues-views.com.) Of course, the NAACP is hardly the only extremist group of the Left, just the most visible one in South Carolina. It remains to be seen whether its future actions substantiate flag supporters' main allegation, that we have just seen one stage in an ongoing campaign of "cultural cleansing," part of the breaking down of potential resistance by the one section of the United States with a visible history of resistance to the central-statism more and more emanating from Washington, D.C., these days.
July 7, 2000
Steven Yates is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994) and numerous articles and reviews. He lives and freelance writes in Columbia, South Carolina.