|A young man sports
a Confederate Flag
cape at a Peterboro, NY
CC / DSC01297 by
Back in 2004, I called the exhibit, "sickening," and condemned the college for, "trying to distance itself from the town by rejecting the Civil War past in which it is steeped." I was wrong. I figured that out no sooner than passing through the doors of the art gallery and viewing the exhibit. Sims' presentation was provocative and jarring, but had some of the most profound things to say about the Confederate Flag that I think can be said. It's been six long years, my views have shifted and solidified, and I now look back on those words I spoke against Sims' project in shame.
What does this have to do with the proverbial prices of tea in China? It all swam back into my mind this past year, during a class session at Shippensburg University. While working on my Masters in Applied History, I had the privilege of taking classes not only with young folks like myself, but teachers returning to school for another degree. One teacher, when we were talking in class about tourism in Gettysburg, brought up the fact she can't bring her class to the town. She has the budget to pay for the buses and admission fee for the museum. She can get the chaperons. Her chief problem is that half her class is black.
I was floored. I constantly wish that Gettysburg had more African-American visitors. The battle that took place there firmly secured freedom for 4 million and acted as the basis upon which the modern Civil Rights movement stood. For a teacher to say she wouldn't bring her class because some of her students were black flabbergasted me.
I probed and challenged. Her answer was sound and succinct. To get her students into the visitor center or around town, she would need to take the bus down Steinweir Avenue. And she feared having to explain to her black students why a Confederate Flag was still allowed to fly high on the flagpole above the wax museum and from nearly every souvenir shop in town.
|Protesters against school integration wield a Confederate Flag (1959) / PD / LC-U9- 2919-25
I completely understand the quandary. The feeling she has scouting out the town and deciding if a trip is the right thing for her students is the same I have in my town every day. I live in Gettysburg, under the watchful gaze of the Confederate Flag at almost every turn. And sometimes I, a short white guy from New York, feel exceedingly uncomfortable with that flag flapping over my shoulder. What does that flag mean? Proponents of the Confederate Flag's display have shouted about pride and heritage and history. That flag is a representation of their grandpappy's struggle for his "rats".
That answer is bunk, pure and simple. The sheer fact is that for every person who says that their grandpappy fought under that stainless banner, I could find someone whose grandpappy fought to destroy that flag and the treason for which it stood. My own great-great granduncle fought in the United States Regulars to tear that flag down from the 11 poles which ran it up in early 1861. He died at Gettysburg firing his gun against troops carrying that flag, trying to keep them (through force of arms) from destroying the nation his grandfather had helped win in the American Revolution.
|Another type of flag flies from the NAACP's
New York Offices in 1938 / CC / LC-USZC4-4734
So, what does it mean to fly a Confederate flag today? Why did a number of southern states, rife with racial strife and challenges to institutional segregation, decide to re-hoist the Confederate Flag from their state capitols in the 1960s? Was there any question in the minds of those legislatures what that flag really meant? Could a dogged defense of the Confederate Flag's display dissuade visitors from coming to places like Gettysburg? Put yourself in an African-American visitor's shoes. Would you visit a place festooned with flags screaming hatred at you?