I came to understand the full context of white supremacy during the summer of 1972 when I was in Alabama visiting my brother-in-law’s family. While out with his younger cousins, we ventured into the corner store to purchase some snacks. After selecting my items and placing them on the counter to purchase them, a white man behind me promptly placed his items in front of mine and told the clerk to ring them up. Deeply offended, better yet, pissed off, I took my items and placed them in front of the ‘gentleman’ and told the clerk “I was here first.” The man looked startled, as was the clerk, but my items were checked out. Outside the store my young friends were mortified but I remained defiant. At age 13 and from the north, I did not fully comprehend that my brazenness could have cost me my life.
At that moment, in that store, little did I know but the Confederate flag was flying even though there was no evidence of it being in the store.
That’s what this campaign to remove the Confederate flag, born out of the tragic killings in Charleston South Carolina, is really about. The ‘bars and stars’ in all variations is a symbol of institutional racism and the false theory of white supremacy. If it has any cultural ‘value,’ it does so only in the context of being representative of a treasonous movement to destroy this nation and commit to eternity the oppression and degradation of Black people. It is a symbol of hate, a reminder of our slippery slope and the flimsy nature of our democracy. It can’t be made iconic or detached from the evil acts committed as it flew overhead; no more than the Nazi swastika can be divorced from the maniacal rule of Adolph Hitler.
For too long this nation has accommodated hate by embracing a false narrative of our founding and the subsequent events that led to slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism. Rather, we have wallowed in lies perpetuated by flags, monuments and other symbols associated with white resistance to extending full citizenship to the descendants of enslaved Africans.
The Confederate flag is the ultimate symbol of white resistance. It is why it is embraced by the Ku Klux Klan and the white militia movement; is so fiercely defended as a ‘cultural’ artifact, and remains a rallying marker for whites who are intent on keeping Blacks subservient. The Confederate flag has taken on even greater meaning as the nation inches toward the day it is populated by a white minority and people of color gain majority status. If all vestiges of white supremacy are not destroyed the United States will replicate the inhumanity of apartheid and suffer, as did South Africa, as a nation constructed on a foundation of racism.
This is no trivial matter and not a distraction as some claim. The Confederate flag is embraced by white supremacists because in their warped minds the outcome of the Civil War has no bearing on their present day claim on this country. The flag is not a historical artifact to these people, rather it is a statement of their future intent and their determination to use any means necessary, including murder, to maintain political and economic control.
Tragically, it took the deaths of nine Black martyrs to bring to full light the contradiction of these symbols of hate with the promise of our democracy. Similarly, just as it took the murder of four Black girls in a Birmingham Alabama church in 1963 to propel the civil rights movement and efforts to extend citizenship to Black people. Sadly, it has often taken the spilling of Black blood for this nation to take an honest look at itself in the mirror. And the reflection always catches America’s bad side.
Through the deaths of nine, church-going and praying Black people, America is engaging in a conversation that has been started more times that I care to remember, and never discussed in full honesty. Removing the Confederate flag is more than therapeutic. It broadcasts the message that our nation is casting off the vestiges of our undemocratic founding and placing its bets on a future in which all men and women are treated equal. This is not a southern problem but rather it is an American problem, and the decisions in South Carolina and Alabama, and by retailers to take down the flag represents a step, albeit an important step, to sever our ties to the past.
These symbols cut to the core of a racist belief system. So long as they remain, and we do not expose their illegitimacy, we are complicit in our own demise.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.