By Scott Tibbs, March 26th, 2003
Nearly one hundred and forty years after the end of the Civil War, the aftermath of the bloodiest conflict in American history is still being felt as Southern states debate whether or not to display the Confederate flag. Flag opponents, led by the NAACP, argue that the Confederate flag represents slavery, racism, and hate, and should not be displayed as a part of any state flag. Flag supporters argue that it represents Southern heritage and pride, and is not a statement of racism or animosity toward blacks.
First, we should note that anything could be twisted into a symbol of hate. While it is true that groups like the Ku Klux Klan use the Confederate flag, they also use the American flag. Does that make the American flag a symbol of racial hatred?
Does the Confederate flag represent slavery? It is important to understand that slavery existed under the American flag far longer than it did under the Confederate flag. Should we adopt a new flag for your country because of this fact? Furthermore, only 6% of Southerners owned slaves. Does it seem logical that tens of thousands of Southerners would die so 6% of the population could own slaves?
The Civil War was largely a war for independence for the Confederacy. The American colonies had fought a war for independence from Britain only 85 years earlier. In recent history, we have advocated for the right to self-determination for Bosnia, Taiwan, and the breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union, among others. President Woodrow Wilson advocated for self-determination of nations in his famous "fourteen points" speech to the Congress. President Bush even supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, despite our strong relationship and alliance with Israel. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the United States has protected the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq from persecution by Saddam Hussein, and in that time the Kurds have basically been governing themselves with our blessing. Indeed, our own Declaration of Independence is a statement of secession.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
However one feels about whether or not the South had a right to secede from the Union, the principle of self-determination is one that is fundamental to our concept of freedom. Even the New York Daily Tribune, which often editorialized against the South, supported the moral right of self-government for the South in a February 23, 1861 editorial.
We have repeatedly said, and we once more insist, that the great principle embodied by Jefferson in the Declaration of American Independence, that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed, is sound and just; and that, if the Slave States, the Cotton States, or the Gulf States only, choose to form an independent nation, they have a clear moral right to do so.
Some of the issues over which so much blood was spilled between 1861 and 1865 are still relevant today. In 1994, the Republicans took over Congress on a platform espousing states rights and devolution of federal power. The size and power of the federal government concern many on both sides of the political spectrum, from the limitations on civil liberties present in the so-called "Patriot Act" to the excesses of the "War on Drugs".
There is no question that slavery was a great moral evil. Very few people want to honor that abominable institution. But flying the Confederate flag does not equal an endorsement of slavery. What many people wish to honor is the spirit of self-determination advocated by the South, even if they would not endorse that principle if exercised today. Many people wish to recognize the courage and honor displayed by Confederate soldiers who sacrificed everything for a chance at self-determination. In addition, many more support the Confederate flag as a way to honor the heritage of their ancestors.
It is true that Confederate emblems were added to state flags at the start of the civil rights movement, and are viewed as a statement of resistance to equal rights for people of all races. But we have made great progress in that regard, and there is no longer any serious debate over whether all people should be denied equal rights on the basis of their skin pigmentation. While it is unfortunate that some, as a way to advocate segregation, misused the Confederate flag, we should not remove an important part of our nation's history because of the lack of wisdom displayed in the past.
I do not deny the hard feelings many blacks have over seeing the Confederate flag displayed. The "Stars and Bars" is a deeply offensive symbol to many in the black community. In debates over whether the Confederate flag is to be displayed, these concerns must be addressed and respected. Supporters of the "Stars and Bars" should be very clear that this is a way to honor their heritage, and that they fully renounce the evil of slavery and its offspring, segregation. At the same time, groups like the NAACP should recognize the importance the Confederate flag has in the hearts of many Southerners and should respect that fact. Surely, a compromise can be reached that reflects the sensitivity of the issue for both sides. While not everyone will be happy with compromise, mutual respect and a willingness to give can do much to resolve this divisive issue.