Tuesday, July 6, 2010

South should end displays of the Confederate flag at school functions

Debbie Arrington lives in Kingsport and has earned degrees in history and accounting. You can email her at DebArrington@hotmail.com.

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
This is the oath that Abraham Lincoln took in 1861 at a moment when our nation was rapidly disintegrating. He considered this to be a vow that he as President would use every tool at his disposal to protect the Union from external and internal threats. I have no doubt that George Bush and Barack Obama who took the same oath would agree with Lincoln. This is a “presidential thing” and transcends political ideology. On a very small scale, President George Washington demonstrated during what’s known as the Whiskey Rebellion that the U.S. government would suppress violent insurrections against federal authority by force if necessary. There still isn’t anything in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits a state from seceding from our republic. But as a practical matter, that was settled in 1865.
I, like most Southerners, deeply respect General Robert E. Lee, his generals and the Confederate soldiers who suffered and died doing what they believed to be their duty. But it still confounds me that many of the leaders of the Confederacy were so willing to dissolve the Republic that their own fathers and grandfathers had risked death by hanging to create. Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were from South Carolina. Monarchists in many European countries gloated at the prospect of the demise of our noble and, to them, liberal experiment in self government.
The seven states which originally seceded from the Union did so in order to preserve a feudal economic system based on slave labor that basically benefited only a small, elite aristocracy. Four days after a group of South Carolina leaders hastily made the decision that their state would leave the Union before cooler heads could prevail, the state government issued a legal proclamation known as the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” This document explicitly revealed that slavery was the chief issue involved in South Carolina’s decision to secede. Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas issued similar proclamations. Although I had earned a history degree, I’d never heard of these declarations until I ran across a copy displayed at the Edmondston-Alston museum house located in Charleston. General Beauregard had watched the bombing of Fort Sumter from the second floor piazza of this home. My view of the Civil War was never quite the same after I stood reading this astounding declaration in that elegant antebellum mansion.
These hotheaded, privileged southerners put the process in motion that would result in the deaths of close to 620,000 Americans. Federal troops would be stationed over parts of the South until 1877. Former Confederates who wished to hold elected office at any level were required to take a retroactive oath of loyalty to the Union. Poverty was rampant in the South until 1945. Robert E. Lee, despite the assistance of Ulysses S. Grant and others, died without regaining his American citizenship. Congress finally voted to restore full rights of citizenship posthumously to General Lee in 1975 and to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1978. These resolutions were signed by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter respect i v e l y.
Most southern states didn’t celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our nation for years after the Civil War. Per the online Fourth of July Celebrations database created by James R. Heintze, the Nashville Banner newspaper published an editorial in 1866 urging citizens not to celebrate the Fourth. On July 4, 1890, a group of 2000 Confederate veterans marched in a parade in Chattanooga. And they didn’t carry Confederate flags.
I can’t help but notice with satisfaction that the Civil War is becoming largely irrelevant to most Americans other than to academics or armchair historians. But for whatever reason, we still have some southerners, especially in South Carolina, who want to keep the memory of the Civil War in the forefront of our nation’s popular culture. They display the Confederate battle flag at every opportunity to “honor their history” even though the British Union Jack flew over the Palmetto State for nearly a hundred years. I think the famed Unionist attorney James Petigru’s comment regarding his state is still rather appropriate: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
Most Confederate soldiers were by all accounts brave and ferocious fighters. Those are admirable traits and coveted compliments to receive from one’s opponent. But even so, I hope that the administrators at Sullivan South High School end all displays of the Confederate battle flag at school functions. There were news reports that a school or two in our region had informed Sullivan South that its students weren’t welcome if they brought this flag with them. The people who adopted this policy aren’t a bunch of big city liberals. They’re just mainstream, twenty-first century East Tennesseans who’d like to leave the “War of Northern Aggression” and its intense emotions in the past.
When South High School kids display those flags to strangers, they’re often viewed as young people with a chip on their shoulder; people who take pleasure in offending others for no good reason. Most teenagers want to be accepted and respected by other teens. It’s not fair to set those kids up for appearing antisocial or worse to outsiders. Give them a chance to make a good first impression. Because a bad first impression can be difficult if not impossible to overcome.