I must admit the recent controversy about the Confederate “battle” flag caught me slightly off-guard. As someone who has lived in Florida since 1979, and have been active in Democratic politics since the mid 1990’s, I simply accepted the flag as a symbol of southern regional pride and expression. Did the flag make me uncomfortable as a person of color? Yes, but my view was always that the right of free expression and regional pride were sacrosanct. Did I wince when passing the huge Confederate Flag at I-75 and I-4 outside Tampa regularly? Yes, I did but again didn’t feel it was my place to do anything about it.
From my vantage point, flying the Confederate flag wasn’t much different for some people than someone of my ethnicity flying an Indian flag, Cuban exiles flying the Cuban flag or someone in Catalonia flying a Catalan flag. For others, it did symbolize hatred but not for everyone. While politically I veer to the left on most issues, and had I been alive in the Civil War and Reconstruction era, I would have been a Radical Republican, I never objected to the right of free expression that the Confederate flag provides. I would not support the flying of the Nazi flag as I believe that has a specific and singular purpose – antisemitism and the forced eradication of a race of people. But the Confederate flag I had long felt was used partly by racists but also by white southerners who wanted to connect with their family heritages and not feel ashamed that their forefathers and mothers had supported the Confederacy.
Part of the reason I felt the way I did was because I am a Democrat. This is two fold – firstly, our party was the political beneficiary of the solid south and I felt so much of the legacy of us controlling the state and creating progressive change beginning with Leroy Collins was because of the support of rural southern voters, many of whom still displayed the flag proudly as I traveled the state. Secondly, I felt as a liberal it was not my place to judge or condemn people for the right to free expression. Besides many southerners I spoke to saw the flag as a symbol of a distinct region, the one part of the country whose unique flavor seemed charming in a modern, corporate-driven world. Those people never harbored a single outward racist view toward me though I look distinctly different and foreign. At the same time, I would admit sadly that I was almost consistently throughout my childhood the subject of racism in school while growing up in Coral Springs. The racism I was subjected to was almost entirely from children whose parents were from the north. Many of those children’s parents were liberal Democrats.
Unfortunately, the late 1990’s and early 2000’s brought neoconfederate thought to the forefront politically as the nation became more and more polarized politically. Cable news particularly FOX News incited fear and coded racism. By the time President Obama took office, the Confederate battle flag no longer had mixed meanings – its display was a clear sign of racism and defiance toward the election of an African-American President.
But still I hedged. I have long felt it is unfair for people from outside the south to stereotype and judge the region. I have long believed it is wrong of politicians to ignore the sacrifices of southern soldiers during the Civil War – while the plantation aristocracy and Democratic Party were racists who conceived secession and war to maintain slavery, the vast majority of southern soldiers were poor whites with no connection to slavery and who fought because it was their localities and their region they wanted to protect. Postwar, the Republican Party and later the populists tried to put together a coalition of recently freed African-Americans and poor whites. But the racist instrument of the southern aristocracy was the Democratic Party, and they used political means to spread fear among poor whites and maintain one-party and racist control of the region including the state of Florida.
Today I join with those who want to see the flag removed from public life. Now that I see southerners call for its removal and eradication, I am on board. However, I still believe that desire of some to eliminate any symbol of the Confederacy and marginalize/ridicule the south is simply wrong. In our rush to react to Charleston, we must evaluate every historical figure individually and not view every man or woman that fought or supported the Confederacy as a racist or traitor. Similarly, we should not view everyone man or woman that fought or supported the Union as a hero.
The lens of history gives us perspective on past events that can both be helpful and damaging. It is important as we move forward to be considerate of those in the south who are not racists but whose parents, grandparents and other ancestors might have been. It is also critical though that we work toward true racial reconciliation not just in the south but around the country.