Behind the Confederate Flag Controversy:
The Unfinished Civil War

— Malik Miah

SOME 50,000 PEOPLE, ninety percent African Americans, marched in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 17, the federal holiday honoring the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The march protest was organized by the NAACP demanding that South Carolina’s government remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse. Until the state officials do so, the NAACP pledged to continue its economic boycott of the state.

South Carolina is the only state that refuses to recognize King’s birthday as a holiday. And it is one of eight southern states that continues to celebrate Confederate Heroes Day on January 19, the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Top officials say they’re simply defending “Southern Heritage” and “state’s rights.” The truth is that South Carolina’s Confederate flag was only raised above the statehouse in 1962 — to show defiance to the powerful civil rights movement, to proclaim white superiority. And it is still there for that reason.

South Carolina State Senator Arthur Ravenel, in a typical comment made by the state’s elected bigots, called the civil rights group “the National Association of Retarded People.” He later apologized to “retarded people” for mistakenly associating them with the NAACP!

Ravenel told New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in a phone interview (January 20) that he was not a racist. Ravenel told Herbert that he shares an office with “a very fine Black senator,” but there was no chance he would apologize to the NAACP. “So far as I’m concerned, they are the enemy,” he said. “They have instituted an economic boycott of the state and that’s a war of sorts.”

Is the clock being turned back to the “good old days” of legal segregation? Can it happen in the new century?

The “new racists” of the South (and North) are not an aberration. But neither are they representative of the majority of white Americans on the issue of race relations.

Times have changed, even though there are many in official and unofficial posts seeking to turn back the clock. The world economy and big business can’t tolerate the type of old colonialism and racism that was prevalent in the country when the first slaves arrived in 1619.

Nevertheless, because racism still wins votes and keeps working people divided on racial and ethnic lines, many white politicians like to play that card. Thus they all proclaim they’re defending “state’s rights” and “Southern heritage” when they’re really defending relative white privilege.

The lack of a strong labor and antiracist movement today makes it easier for the bigots and their right-wing friends to dominate the air waves and policies of states like South Carolina.

Defending Privilege

George W. Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, appealing to this layer, therefore refuses to condemn the bigots of South Carolina. He said it is an issue for the people of South Carolina. Not surprisingly Texas “honors” the Confederate “heroes” who defended slavery.

What does the Confederate flag represent to African Americans and other Americans of good will?

It is not a flag that represents positive aspects of “Southern heritage” — it reflects a racist heritage that more and more white Southerners openly reject, a heritage that through violence sought the breakup of the United States in the 1860s in order to maintain a white-supremacist, slave-owning society.

The hypocrisy of the major Republican presidential candidates shows that racism is still a powerful tool to keep working people divided.

Those white workers who believe the rising tide of Asian and Latino immigration will automatically shift political power more to people of color don’t understand how power is acquired or works. Those who have it (Wall Street and big business) never willingly give it up. They are not workers (white or Black) or supporters of genuine democracy.

The rich and powerful white men who run the country will do what is necessary, including using the race card, to keep their political and economic power.

While African Americans and others in South Carolina, including leading corporate figures (who rely on an international market), are pushing to take down the flag, the bigots like Ravenel are holding tough. They see it as an issue of losing future political power in the state. (African Americans are thirty percent of the population.)

The symbolism of the Confederate flag — as reactionary as it is — is not, however, the primary motivation for the NAACP’s campaign. (They’ve suggested, correctly, that the proper place for the flag is in a museum.)

It is the reality of living racism that concerns the NAACP. This racism continues to have a material impact on the lives of African Americans in the state and nationwide.

Living Reality of Racism

The counteroffensive by the right-wing in the mainstream parties and government and courts, against affirmative action programs and other gains won by minorities since the 1960s, is what strikes fear in the hearts of the NAACP leadership and the new middle class layer in the Black community.

The income gap between the haves and have-nots (disproportionately African Americans) continues to widen. What was gained can be lost if a fight is not put up. This desire to stop the erosion of gains motivates the NAACP and its supporters.

While some believe the changing demographics means we can never go backward, American history tells us otherwise. After the Civil War, when the old slave-owning elite was smashed and replaced by the northern ruling class, African Americans briefly won real citizenship rights. Many Blacks were elected to public office in the post-Civil War South and made progress toward real equality.

Yet this was all reversed by the 1880s, when the ruling class made a deal with the racists they crushed in the civil war to allow them political control once again. The gains won by the former slaves were quickly taken away — first by violence, then by new legal codes.

The freed Blacks lost their right to vote and control their destinies. The new laws established Jim Crow segregation (and second-class status of African Americans) and were later codified by Supreme Court decisions, the most famous being Pessy v. Ferguson in 1896 that upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

The defeat of what was known as “Radical Reconstruction” set back not only Black rights but the struggle of labor in this country for nearly 100 years. From the late 19th century on, the ruling powers pulled out the “race card” to trick white workers and farmers to back them against the rights of African Americans, Latinos and Chinese Americans.

The organized labor unions’ officials were some of the worst racists. In California, it was the AFL officials who led the public push to get Congress to adopt the “Chinese Exclusion Act” and kept Blacks out of the unions. It took a powerful civil rights revolution in the 1950s and `60s to reverse that legal defeat and begin to end segregation — a task far from completed.

It is no wonder that African Americans have always relied on ourselves to press for full citizenship and our democratic rights. It is why independent Black organizations exist and must be on guard against all forms of racism, even symbolic ones such as the Confederate flag.

The betrayals of labor officials and liberals in the post Civil War period are well documented. The power of the Black struggle lies in its militant refusal to “wait” for others to fight back. It is when white working people see their own interests in taking on the system that unity against racism in action is realized.

The battle against the Confederate flag in South Carolina is in that long tradition of resistance. And victory is not only possible but inevitable if the broad unity shown on January 17 is maintained.

ATC 85, March–April 2000