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On the Confederate Flag


Most white Americans understand why so many Blacks want the Confederate flag removed from state office buildings specifically and from out of their sight in general. That is really not the crux of the flag debate. The real debate is whether white Americans have the political will and incentive to do anything about it. For some whites, the flag coming down represents little more than the political establishment giving in yet again, to the demands of the Black Electorate. And for them, that is too much to bear.

At present, the Black Electorate views the issue more in the context of cultural terms than in political terms. Blacks want whites to know how the Confederate flag makes them feel more than they want any specific political agenda items established as law. The Confederate Flag issue represents the opportunity for Blacks to make a statement to American society as a whole and not just to its political establishment. But Whites hear the cultural argument made by Blacks and generally internalize it in political terms. To them, the issue is seen as a challenge to the status quo, no matter how legitimate the case against the Confederate Flag may be.

Deep down, these whites realize a far greater truth and its implications. They know that nothing has been done under the Confederate Flag that has not been done under the American flag. In their minds, if the political establishment were to back away from the Confederate flag, such action would represent a subtle step away from America itself. And because of this, whites are hesitant to concede any political ground on the issue. To do so would raise the problem of race and the history of slavery - two explosive subjects that are increasingly becoming taboo in American politics because of their implications.

For many whites, even on a subconscious level, admitting culpability for slavery and admitting that the legacy of slavery exists in real terms today is to admit that America as a country has failed to live up to its promise. Such an admission would require action and such action would come in large part through the political mechanism. So, though it may not appear to be the case initially, the different reactions to the Confederate flag among Blacks and whites reveal much about the soul of this country. And even more striking than the very colorful personal reactions to the flag is the slowness of many whites to move in the political arena to do anything about a symbol that they concede offends a significant portion of its population. To many, the issue is not about right or wrong but rather it is about power.

Which brings us to Congressman Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) and his attempt to pass legislation condemning the use of the Confederate flag. Rep. Thompson, for years, has been active in efforts to have the Rebel Battle Flag removed from the Mississippi State flag. He also is the only member of Congress that does not have a state flag placed outside of his office. A few weeks ago Rep. Thompson introduced House Resolution 466 in an effort to show solidarity with the South Carolina NAACP in its efforts to have the Confederate flag removed from the dome of the S.C. state capitol building. The bill unequivocally condemns the Confederate flag and rather uniquely depicts it not only as a symbol of racism but one of treason against the United States. It is this angle, that of treason, that is particularly de-emphasized by Confederate flag supporters. Thompson skillfully depicts the Confederate flag not just as anti-Black but also as anti-American.

Currently the bill has 27 cosponsors, none of which are Republican. At present, the legislation is stalled and struggling to gain additional support. Rep. Thompson finds that to be peculiar, especially since the issue has been so high profile in nature and because so many members of Congress say they are against what the flag symbolizes.

In the final analysis, the Black electorate may decide how far the issue goes and whether House Resolution 466 gains passage in the U.S. Congress. At present, most Blacks feel the need for the flag to come down but are not quite sure of a strategy to ensure that. Currently, the cultural and social approach of economic boycotts and marches are preferred over legislation. Rep. Thompson hopes that soon will change and that his efforts will be embraced by the Black Electorate and by America's predominately white political establishment. He certainly is fighting an uphill battle.

What follows is a release announcing HR 466 and Rep. Thompson's explanation of his intentions and motivations in reference to the legislation.

WASHINGTON, DC - United States Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) introduced legislation today condemning the use of the Confederate Flag for "any reason other than as a historic reminder of the secession of the Confederate States, which prompted the violent, bloody, and divisive Civil War, and of the Confederacy's flagrant disregard for the equality of all Americans in accordance with the United States Constitution and in the eyes of God."

Congressman Thompson said, "There are a million reasons why the
Confederate Flag should not be flying over any state capitol, comprise a part of any state flag, or be displayed in any place of honor or
distinction. From its racist past to its polemic present, the one thing that can be stated unequivocally, is that today, the flag has become shrouded in an over-simplified, revisionist version of American history."

"Claims that the flag represents a benign segment of Southern history,
ruled by some sort of gentile charm and virtuous code of conduct, are
patently offensive to every American whose ancestors were brutalized by the stinging pains of slavery or ostracized by its illegitimate progeny, Jim Crow."

"This legislation is intended to set the record straight. The Leaders of
the Confederate States of America were traitors. Had they been allowed to succeed in their ultimate act of betrayal, they would have destroyed all of the principles and freedoms we hold dear as Americans. It is impossible to celebrate the Confederate Flag and simultaneously profess one's love of democracy. It is self-delusional to attribute equality, freedom and opportunity to the Confederacy when its treasonous acts would have destroyed all of these values -- these American values."

"As our nation tries to deal with the rise in conspicuous acts of racial
violence and hate, the one glaring fact with which we are frequently
confronted is that we have not adequately and honestly dealt with our
past. Once again, this resolution will be a constructive first step in
starting that dialogue. I challenge one person who presently supports the flying of the Confederate flag to read the words contained in this
legislation and say that the beliefs of the Confederacy, articulated in
this bill, do not stand in direct conflict with the principles we enjoy as
one nation united and indivisible under God."

"At the end of the day, this bill is about the true history of the flag
flying over the Capitol building in South Carolina. It clarifies the
symbolism connected with the battle flag contained in the Mississippi and Georgia state flags. At the end of the day, this legislation begs the
question, 'Will we, as Americans, united and God-fearing, allow ourselves to posthumously give the Confederacy the divided nation they so desperately fought to create, or will we embrace the fundamental principles which presently govern the moral conscience of our nation and work toward a day when the actions of our shared, American heroes overshadow the treasonous acts of a group of traitors whose actions would have destroyed our nation."


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, April 18, 2000

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