On The Flag Coming Down: A Personal Note

I’ve seen some recent commentary elsewhere about the balance between activism and scholarship, commentary that I think easy to question if not to dismiss almost altogether. But it’s always a good idea to check how one’s personal feelings and sentiments play into one’s scholarship and commentary. Now that the Confederate Battle Flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state house, let me share some personal observations.

I came to South Carolina in 1987 to teach at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I had never set foot in the state until I arrived for my job interview. I recall going to Charleston that spring to speak at a conference on southern history. My session on Ulysses S. Grant and the South during Reconstruction took place in the Confederate museum on the campus of the Citadel, where some members of the audience met my message with stone silence. I also recall touring Charleston on what happened to be April 9, entering what folks told me was an old slave market (then an antique mall) and deciding to buy a medal commemorating Appomattox as my little protest (I later learned that someone in Charleston had confused the City Market with the Old Slave Mart).

But that was Charleston. Over the next three years I had reason to visit Columbia on several occasions. I toured the state house and the grounds outside; I looked at the stars on the side of that building marking where shells from Sherman’s artillery hit; I stopped at monuments to Wade Hampton (dressed, not as governor, but as Confederate general) and Confederate women. I saw the statue of Washington that was damaged during Columbia’s capture by US troops.

None of that really bothered me. After all, I had gone to a university that had a Confederate cemetery adjoining my first year dorm in a town that boasted statues of Lee and Jackson downtown, and I had worked for three years in the middle of a Civil War battlefield (look where the University of Tennessee is located sometime). I was perfectly willing to accept what I saw as part of history.

Credit: Charleston Post & Courier

Only one thing rubbed me the wrong way. Atop the state house dome flew three flags: the US flag, the state flag, and the Confederate navy jack/Army of Tennessee banner. Given Hampton’s rather feeble defense of the city (and the role his orders played in setting it ablaze), one could chuckle at its Civil War context. But all one really needed to know is that the flag had gone up in 1961 as a message about resistance to the federal government’s policies concerning civil rights to realize that it meant something far more than honoring heritage over a century old … although, in its way, it honored a different sort of heritage.

To me, it was in part a heritage of hostility towards outsiders, including someone like me. I could understand how other people looked at it, and how some people would say that it honored Confederate heritage while others could say that it was a defiant reminder of white supremacy and racism … and both could be right, because there was more than a little overlap. Given that I also knew about what happened in South Carolina during Reconstruction, I wondered if the same flag flew at Hamburg, where in 1876 Confederate veterans acted on their understanding of their heritage and duty. Some people honor those terrorists known as the Red Shirts to this very day.

In short, I didn’t like what I saw, and I understood that it was South Carolina’s way of flipping the bird at many people, including the state’s own African American population, as well as outsiders like me.

I hasten to add that I didn’t think all white South Carolinians (or white southerners) felt the same way. Living in Virginia and Tennessee had helped me appreciate that the South was a fairly diverse place, a point reinforced by travels to New Orleans and Atlanta and Nashville and Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky. That said, South Carolinians were different from other southerners, even as they were different from each other, as life in the piedmont and upcountry demonstrated (to say nothing of the difference between black and white).

Still, that flag sent a message, and it was not a message I cared for.

During my three years at Wofford I seldom ran into people who romanticized the Confederacy or who baited Yankees such as myself. The students, especially those who warmed up to me, were fairly open-minded and willing to be challenged. The KAs named me faculty member of the month, and if you know anything about the KAs, you know that they would not have done so had they thought I was an unreasonable hostile force. One student gave me a handsome engraving of “The Last Meeting” (Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville) which still hangs at my house (others, deciding to commemorate Grant, gave me bottles filled with various substances). The only time I ever snapped at a student at Wofford was when I sensed a student wasn’t giving his best effort and believed he could slip by because he was an African American athlete. He later thanked me for not patronizing him, observing that many white “liberal” faculty, many of whom were southern by origin and education, reacted to him with a combination of fear, guilt, and condescension.

Most faculty members were just as civil … although here and there I ran into a few people who knew how to use the prejudices of others to their own advantage (and who may have shared those prejudices). As I did not teach the Civil War course at Wofford (and it was a Civil War course, not a course covering the coming, conduct, and consequences of the war), one might argue that these issues rarely came to the fore. But everyone knew my research interests, and they also knew that the college had made special provisions in the library to house the documentary editing project that became Sherman’s Civil War.

I left Wofford in 1990 to accept a position at Arizona State University. I can’t say that I left Wofford because of feeling uncomfortable because of such issues, although I was aware that the racial attitudes of a few white faculty members shaped my experience there. After all, there was only one African-American member of the faculty, an instructor in the English department; and, while African-American students asked me to attend meetings where they made their feelings and perspectives known, I can’t say that they found me more than a helpful adviser (by the way, so did the College Republicans, who embraced me because I wanted to make sure that discussions about political issues got a fair hearing). But I must admit that it was difficult to talk to other people about South Carolina without hearing about that flag in Columbia, and knowing full well that they had a point, even if they then abused it in stereotyping the people I knew.

A decade after my departure, I heard that after long and acrimonious debate the flag came down off the dome, only to appear on the grounds. At first that seemed a reasonable compromise, until I learned how some white South Carolinians celebrated its placement as an act of defiance (which has nothing to do with honoring heritage). Apparently it’s important to honor Confederate heritage … but not anyone else’s heritage. The very people who said it was important to be civil to Confederate heritage advocates openly questioned black history month and women’s history month (women ought to have 27 weeks to be truly fair, but I digress). Lately I’ve seen the very people who “honor” Confederate heritage use flag-raisings as acts of mean-spirited defiance, and they have mocked the very heritage they pretend to honor by acting like fools and expressing their hatred of other folks. Oh, I’m sure you’ll tell me those folks aren’t typical, but the fact is that Confederate heritage advocates who don’t share these views or exhibit such behavior have failed to defend what they believe in from those who do act in such a way as to disgrace the entire enterprise of Confederate heritage. We’ll see that again this July 18 in Columbia when the KKK arrives in town. Trust me.

And so, in the end, I have no problem with the flag coming down, because it sends a message that I believe is a positive one about South Carolina, just as I believe that the flag being up sent a negative message to people like me (and, I’m quite sure, an even more negative message to other people). What happens next interests me more. We’ll soon see whether this was simply a symbolic act or the beginning of something more profound and worthwhile.

So yes, I’m glad it’s down. May it never go back up.

7 thoughts on “On The Flag Coming Down: A Personal Note

  1. Laqueesha July 11, 2015 / 4:09 pm

    Well said.

  2. Sandi Saunders July 11, 2015 / 4:19 pm

    I certainly will not tell you “those folks aren’t typical” because from what I have seen they are totally typical and sad. If they are the best their ancestors can offer, it is a sad, sad thing. They are not my South, they do not speak for my heritage and sadly, they are entirely too close to what their ancestors were.

  3. Jimmy Dick July 11, 2015 / 6:02 pm

    Well stated, Brooks.

  4. Ee July 11, 2015 / 11:41 pm

    As scholars, we should always acknowledge our subject position Because it makes our work stronger and more honest despite what these know nothing’s say – thanks for this. Also, Lefevre-Metcalf 4ever!

  5. Cedar Posts July 13, 2015 / 6:14 pm

    Brooks,

    Lets back up a minute. First the slave market you speak of was never a slave market, in fact from well before 1776 it was an open air market. The City Market was then and always just a market.

    Slaves were “sold, housed and traded” about 3 blocks south at Chalmers, State and Queen Streets. It was a rather unseemly business conducted down alleys and out of sight. Keep in mind and this surprises many, the slave “trade” that is Africans in slave ships hadn’t docked in Charleston since the late 1700’s. Today the only remaining Slave Mart is at 6 Chalmers Street currently a very sobering museum.

    Don’t feel bad you made a common tourist mistake.

    Walk out to White Point where tourists marvel at the rifled cannons and then comment on how the Citadel Cadets fired on (pointing towards) Fort Sumter out there. Again common tourist mistake. The location and cannons and the ones doing the firing all known facts to some all lost to time for many.

    Up in Columbia the Confederate Battle Flag was not raised as a middle finger to Civil Rights rather to honor the 100th anniversary on South Carolina’s secession. The original intent was to bring down the flag down after a year. No one can say for sure why the flag remained past 1961, perhaps it was indeed a “up yours” to Washington by the Dixecrats who ran South Carolina at the time.

    So fast forward to 1978 and the first time I saw the Confederate Battle Flag and above it the South Carolina Palmetto and the Stars and Stripes. It was well after midnight on a humid summer night, to me there was nothing more beautiful in the night air than those three flags. The confederate battle flag whispered history as gently as the stars (battle scars) the dotted the capitol building itself.

    In 1978 South Carolina was just starting to recover from the oil embargo four years prior, the housing market that had suffered greatly as did tourism had started to rebound.

    South Carolina promoted her civil war colors from coast to coast and tourists flocked to see Charleston carriage drivers with rebel kepi hats and “blood” sashes, no kid left Charleston without a gray felt kepi hat and a rebel yell to drive his/her parents crazy. Columbia opened a Zoo and Myrtle Beach built its first resort golf course following in the foots steps of Hilton Head Island.

    Through 1978 the flag was notable for its tourist connection and not for being the flag of choice for the KKK.

    The following year the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued to obtain trademark rights to the Confederate Flag in an effort to prevent the KKK and other racist groups from using the flag as a tool for hate speech. The democrat controlled trade and paten office and later the courts denied the effort, handing the flag to the klan.

    The flag today is a symbol of hate, badge of honor, or a sign that says “here hold my beer, watch this.

    Take your pick just get your facts right.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 13, 2015 / 8:19 pm

      I’m sure you believe that you say, Cedar. If you want to tell me that people in Charleston lied or were mistaken about that structure in 1987, then I guess the only common tourist mistake is trusting people in Charleston. Are you saying they lie a lot to visitors? Seems that confusion is a bit broader than you admit, so maybe they were just good folks making mistakes. Hard to blame tourists for thinking the natives knew better. After all, you speak about 1776, but this suggests the structure dates from the 1790s with Market Hall being added later. One might wonder whether you have your facts straight. We can take that as a mark of how accurate the rest of your ramble might be. That’s a lot of effort expended to claim that your opinions are fact.

      Then you claim this: “Keep in mind and this surprises many, the slave ‘trade’ that is Africans in slave ships hadn’t docked in Charleston since the late 1700’s.” I’m not sure why you think this is important. Slaves were still bought and sold in Charleston (and the transAtlantic slave trade closed in 1808): the building now known as the Old Slave Mart was built in 1859, just a few years after South Carolinians had led the way in an unsuccessful effort to reopen the transAtlantic slave trade. For more on Charleston and the trading of slaves, see here. You might learn something.

      Then again, as you admit on your blog: “The author makes no claim about the truth or political correctness of items reported herein. Cedar Posts like hunting stories told over a cold beer are subject to varying degrees of embellishment.” I take your comments in light of your own advice.

      Don’t worry … it’s a typical “heritage, not history” mistake. I just thought that someone who claimed to know a lot about South Carolina knew better. Guess I should not have made that assumption. You sure did remind me of that fact.

      Take care.

  6. Salvador Litvak July 14, 2015 / 5:10 pm

    Well said, Brooks. And thank you for bringing the Hamburg massacre to my attention. I was not familiar with it. I was not sorry to further learn that the town was eventually washed away…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s