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A history lesson about the Rebel flag

May 29, 2010

Update: On this week’s Sam Obar Show on the Discussion Radio Network, I discussed the Rebel flag in Walpole and the news coverage it has been getting. Listen to the entire show here.

This week was a truly sad week in the history of my high school. The Boston Globe ran a front-page article on Tuesday about a local resident who has decided it is acceptable to put up a Confederate flag next to Turco Field. A Channel 7 WHDH news report soon followed. Then NECN coverage. Still later, an embarrassing Globe editorial essentially criticizing Walpole’s school administrators for not doing enough to disassociate our current mascot with the Confederacy. Finally, to cap off a tumultuous week of humiliating news coverage, CNN has featured the issue on their website.

I hope that all those in Walpole who continue to believe that the Rebel flag is “not offensive” and feel that taking it down would be nothing more than “political correctness” are satisfied with themselves. Their cause, all in the name of “tradition”, have put Walpole in the center of attention on television news, in a major newspaper, and throughout the internet on blogs and websites across the country.

This is not “political correctness.” If nothing else, this is an issue about what our town looks like to outsiders. This is an issue about what people think about our town when they see the flag next to our football field. Presently, thanks to the Globe’s embarrassing coverage, our town, and our school, look absolutely horrible in the court of public opinion.

While the Globe article is getting mixed reviews in the local area, it is also being actively discussed by pro-South bloggers. SLMNews.com, described as a “pro-South, pro-liberty media effort” gloated about the Rebel flag in Walpole and praised Mr. Finneran for putting it up. “I had no idea that a high school football team in Massachusetts of all places would be called the Rebels and that a Confederate flag would be used as their symbol!,” a blogger named PalmettoPatriot wrote this week. The blog gleefully reminds its readers to “notice too that student athletes support the flag.” The blogger lambasts the Globe reporter by saying, “if this story isn’t a clear display of the sort of anti-liberty, anti-South bias that is rampant in the media, I’m not sure what is.” SLMNews.com, by the way, is the same sort of website that regularly tosses around the idea of Southern secession. For instance, PalmettoPatriot also wrote a blog post recently entitled “Secession Scenario: Here Is How To Secede From The Union”.

SLMNews.com was not the only blog to cover the issue. The Civil War Interactive Newswire, which provides news about the Civil War in general, linked to the story and wrote “in most other parts of the country the flag is a searingly divisive symbol of racial segregation. But here, it is also a display of pride for the Walpole High School Rebels.” I’m not sure what to make of this fairly embarrassing headline.

Many WHS students, mostly athletes, still don’t get what the flag represents. How anybody can defend the man who put this flag up is beyond me. They seem to misunderstand the true meaning of the Confederate flag and the hurtful imagery and symbolism it provides. They seem to forget what the states that used it were fighting for, and why so many African Americans do find the flag offensive. They seem to have some misconceptions about whether or not people outside Walpole really do see the flag next to Turco Field as highly insulting. So here is a brief history lesson for all those who seem to have the false belief that I represent the politically correct police, and not sound reasoning from a historical perspective.

Walpole residents who defend the flag’s prominent position next to Turco Field like to try to note that the flag merely represents a group of states that only wanted to maintain states’ rights, and were concerned about the domination of the federal government. Some like to justify the use of the Confederate flag by merely saying, “The South lost. We won. Our cause was superior anyway.”

The causes for the Civil War will always be an ongoing debate. But I maintain that the Confederacy broke away from the United States for the purpose of maintaining slavery. Here is an excerpt from the Confederate constitution that details the issue of slavery: “The institution of Negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the territorial government.” Southerners, when putting together their new constitution intended to make sure that the right to keep slaves was maintained. The Confederate constitution uses the words “slave” and “negro” liberally – and outlines, among other things, that if a slave escapes from its master it must be returned to the slave owner.

While observers in both the North and South during and after the war may have thought that the war was over preserving the union or states’ rights, the Confederacy seceded from the Union in the first place primarily due to a series of decisions by the federal government to limit slavery in the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, on a platform of further slavery limits, set into action the course of secession in the South.

Soon after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina voted to secede. In its declaration of secession, South Carolina presented a litany of reasons why they felt the US Government was encroaching on their rights as a state. But the entire document includes numerous references to “slaves”, “free persons”, “slaveholding states”, “non-slaveholding states”, and “the institution of slavery.” It is clear that slavery was the underlying reason for the secession. “[The non-slaveholding states] have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery,” the document reads. “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery,” the document continues, alluding to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. The document declared that the federal government had announced that “a war must be waged against slavery.” Thus, the document concludes, “the slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection.” That is their supposed belief in a loss of “states’ rights” that so many people continue to claim was the reason for the Civil War.

Mississippi’s declaration of secession firmly outlined the reason why they were leaving the country. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” the document reads. “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin,” the document continues. Georgia’s declaration of secession, too, laid out very clearly why they were seceding – slavery. “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery,” the document’s second sentence reads, before launching into a list of grievances against the North and the federal government, primarily dealing with slavery.

It is clear that the Southern states seceded because they were upset about slavery being hindered. The Confederate states, represented by the Confederate flag that is now up for display at all Walpole home field sporting events, left the United States not because of states’ rights, but because of slavery.

Here is an excerpt from Callaloo, written by Charles Joyner, a professor of Southern History and Culture at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, that refutes the assertion that the war was fought over states’ rights:

Some South Carolinians deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery, maintaining that it was fought over the rights of the states to control their own destinies. Slavery, they believe, was incidental.

But when South Carolina delegates walked out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston as a prelude to secession, their spokesman William Preston minced no words in declaring that “Slavery is our King; slavery is our Truth; slavery is our Divine Right.” And a few months later when the signers of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession issued their Declaration of the Causes of Secession, they specifically referred to the “domestic institution” of slavery. They objected that the free states have “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.” They charged that the free states had “encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain have been incited by emissaries, books, and pictures, to hostile insurrection.”

Moreover, in 1861, as President and Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens each candidly acknowledged that their new nation was created for the specific purpose of perpetuating slavery. In an address to the Confederate Congress in April of 1861 Davis declared that “a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States” had culminated in a political party dedicated to “annihilating in effect property worth thousands of dollars.” Since “the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable” to the South’s production of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, Davis said, “the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”

In a speech in Savannah, Stephens made it even clearer that the establishment of the Confederacy had “put to rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions–African slavery as it exists among us–the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” He added that the Confederacy was “founded upon” what he called “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

Running successfully for governor of South Carolina in the critical election of 1860, Francis W. Pickens left little doubt of his support for disunion and even war to perpetuate slavery. His sentiments were echoed by his old friend Edward Bryan, who declared in the campaign, “Give us slavery or give us death!” Pickens committed his state–and ours–to a ruinous course. “I would be willing to appeal to the gods of battles,” he defiantly declared, “if need be, cover the state with ruin, conflagration and blood rather than submit.” These are not interpretations by historians; they are statements made at the time by Confederate leaders explaining what they were doing and why.

After the war had been lost, and the Lost Cause was in need of justification, Davis and Stephens backed away from their original statements, casting the cause of the war in the context of “states rights.” Their revisionist interpretation, in which slavery became not the cause but merely the “question” resolved on the field of battle, still misleads many South Carolinians. The historical record, however, clearly shows that the cause for which the South seceded and fought a devastating war was slavery.

I could continue this mini-history lesson of the real reason why the South left the Union and why the Civil War began, but I think most of my blog’s readers get the point by now.

Ever since the Civil War, the flag has been used in a number of situations that have do with the degradation of African Americans, as with slavery. The Ku Klux Klan to this day proudly uses the Confederate flag and promotes its use. Here is a picture from the KKK website of a group of their members proudly displaying the Confederate flag at a rally in 2008:

normal_2008_Rally_GKR_036.jpg

(Please note I do not own the rights to this image.)

The Confederate flag is obviously still alive and well and is not a part of long-lost history, as some Walpole residents have vehemently insisted. Let’s compare the above photo with the following photo of Walpole earlier in the school year:

rebelflag.jpg

I see no difference between the flag put up by this obnoxious individual next to the field and the flags used by the KKK as a symbol of their disgusting racism. The Neo-Nazis, too, an organization seeking to revive the racism of Nazism, promote the flag’s use as well and use it occasionally to represent their own disgusting purposes.

Some WalpoleWords user will comment that just because the Neo-Nazis and KKK use the flag doesn’t mean it’s racist. They will insist that the KKK’s use of the flag is independent of Walpole’s use of the flag. That may be true, but here’s the interesting part: only a few people would know that if they are attending a Turco Field football game from out of town and the first thing they see is the flag. The KKK and the South were using the flag long before Walpole decided to use it, but by adopting the flag in the 1960s as our football team’s official symbol, we indicated very strongly that the KKK’s use of the flag was something we endorsed. In fact, we seemed to be saying, the flag looks like such a great symbol with the KKK that we’ll use it ourselves for our own sports teams. During the 1960s, the flag was used in the South by whites to try to illustrate their opposition to federal laws mandating desegregation. Waving the Confederate flag served as a symbol of resistance to integration. That sounds pretty hateful towards blacks to me.

Here’s the flag in a 1960 picture of a meeting of the “White Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans”, in which citizens protested the integration of two local elementary schools:

BE051632.jpg

(Please note I do not own the rights to this image.)

Perhaps some Walpole residents who believe that “no one could be legitimately offended by the Rebel flag” would be interested to know what the highly-respected NAACP, one of the foremost civil rights organizations, believes, even today, about the flag. The NAACP considers the flag to be “no less than the noose itself,” according to their website. They further declare that “the confederate flag is a racially divisive symbol” with a “message of racial hatred, segregation, slavery, and second class citizenship.”

In April 2000, the South Carolina State Senate, after many years of controversy, finally voted to remove a Confederate flag from the top of their state’s Capitol building. Here’s a 2007 ESPN article about South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier who called South Carolina’s Confederate flag “embarrassing.” I wonder what he’d think about Walpole’s glorified use of the flag as an implied symbol for our own football team.

Mike Amaral, who has unfairly become the lightning rod for the push against the Rebel mascot, has written extensively about the Walpole residents who fought in the Civil War. Every one of them fought against the army represented by the Confederate flag. It is insulting and degrading to these Civil War veterans to portray the Confederate flag in Walpole as something to be proud of. Walpole residents fought and died fighting against the flag and what it stood for. They fought for preserving the union and eliminating slavery.

The Confederate flag has never been used to represent anything positive: it was used as a symbol of the split of our country, it was used as a symbol of a confederacy that wanted to maintain the right to hold slaves, it was used as a symbol of Southern protests to the civil rights movement, and continues to be used as a symbol of racist organizations. Any Walpole resident who calls the use of this flag “acceptable” in Walpole should try to find even one time in American history before it was used in Walpole when the flag has actually stood for something “acceptable.”

I urge Walpole residents to put pressure on this out-of-touch resident to take down his flag. A full signature drive will begin this week to get WHS students to sign a petition demanding the man remove his flag. By educating the public about the flag’s connotations, I hope others will also demand it be taken down.

Please note that I do not favor changing the name of the Rebels altogether, but rather I favor revamping the existing mascot to reflect the Rebels in a context not having to do with the Civil War. I favor taking the Rebel flag down, removing the image of the “Gun-Totin Reb” on the sign on the front lawn of the high school, and starting a coordinated effort with the cooperation of students, parents, and the community to change what our Rebel mascot looks like and what it represents.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. John Holt permalink
    September 17, 2014 8:59 PM

    I agree with your comments and appreciate the historical research. Maybe Mike Amaral is right to argue for a total rejection of the name ‘Rebels’ and all Confederate associations. I am inclined to retaining ‘Rebels’ and associating it with the American rebels of 1775-83. My thinking is that the name has over 40 years of town pride behind it. The school has already rejected the Confederate flag, so the incremental next step is to reject all things related to the Confederacy , including the ‘Kentucky Colonel’ cartoon as the figurative representation of a rebel.

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