By John Lee
“Take it down! Take it down! Take it down!” the crowd cheered as they awaited the historic moment when 54 years of living under a symbol of oppression would finally come to an end. These were the people of South Carolina, black and white, young and old. Hundreds gathered at the state capitol last month to witness the long-overdue retirement of the Confederate flag. The ceremony itself lasted only a couple of minutes, but it represented much more: another battle won in the war against discrimination.
Yet, for some, this was no victory. The significance of the Confederate flag has witnessed polarizing controversy and heated debate for years. According to a June 2015 poll by the Cable News Network, 57% of respondents see the flag more as a symbol of Southern pride than as a symbol of racism. Only 33% thought otherwise. To that 57%, the short-lived Confederacy represents a source of pride for those who fought for states’ rights like the nation’s founders intended.
There is no denying the legitimacy of such an argument. It cannot be said that everyone who sees pride in the Confederate flag is a racist because it really does represent different things for different people. People have the right to interpret the meaning of the flag in whatever way it pertains to them. In fact, the labeling of all Southerners as “racists” is just as harmful and ignorant as is the claim that racism no longer exists. Both are extreme generalizations that fail to understand the deeper complexities of this issue. The Confederacy is gone, and the Civil War is dead. No one will ever know what went on in every soldier’s mind as he went out to battle.
People may have the right to remain proud of the Confederacy, but they definitely do not have the right to deny the historical suffering of others under the same regime. That banner that once stood above the South Carolina Capitol was not even the official flag of the Confederacy. It was the Confederate Jack, a battle flag that was flown above Confederate ships and carried into war, a flag that in 1961 was raised over the South Carolina Capitol in the faces of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the rest of the rising Civil Rights Movement. Most importantly, it was a flag of rebellion that today makes little sense for an American to wave proudly while living in the very country from which the Confederacy tried to secede.
On the following evening after Dylann Roof took the lives of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” conveyed these thoughts: “I honestly have nothing, other than just sadness that once again we have to peer into the abyss of depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a gaping, racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend does not exist.”
The Confederacy was not founded for the explicit purpose of enforcing slavery, that much must be understood by all. However, the accreditation of that as a reason to ignore the suffering of people who directly experienced the undeniable presence of racism is what makes 33% of Americans see the Confederate flag as a symbol of oppression. There is no fault in being proud of one’s origins, unless that pride chooses to only uphold the good while ignoring the rest.
Ultimately, the issue with racism is not black-and-white. It is often too complex to understand, and perhaps, too complex to ever be able to overcome. Yet, one thing remains assured: The ability for someone to live in the United States and proclaim their faith to the Confederate flag is an extreme privilege, especially when there are students who pledge allegiance to America’s own flag every day yet still have never experienced what exactly it means to live “with liberty and justice for all.”