Can you think of a better way for a black man to spend Memorial Day than to burn a Confederate flag?
As was reported in the Orlando Sentinel, an artist will do exactly that, with plans to make it happen in all the states throughout the former Confederacy.
John Sims, an artist from Sarasota, Florida, is honoring the constitutional right of self-expression by staging burnings and burials of the Rebel flag, that troublesome symbol of the Old South that many, particularly African-Americans, associate with slavery, white supremacy and state-sponsored terrorism and lynchings.
“We are in America, and people have the right to fly whatever flag [they want],” Sims said. “And I have the right to bury whatever flag, and to burn whatever flag.”
Sims noted that the Dixie flag, which the South flew during the Civil War, is associated with many toxic memories of the American experience, especially from the black perspective. “There’s a notion of ‘Southern Heritage’ and who owns [that], but a very important part of Southern culture is the African-American experience.… The Confederate flag is a flag of terror from its use by the Klan in the ’20s to the anti-civil-rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s,” Sims said.
“The flag is almost too toxic to handle, and for those who do, I’m suspicious of their engagement. Are you in denial?”
Sims — who in 2004 painted the Confederate flag red, black and green to resemble the Black Liberation or Pan-African flag — plans to stage the “belated burial” and cremation of the Dixie flag with simultaneous coordinated ceremonies in the 10 former secessionist states, and Kentucky and Missouri.
To be sure, a number of people will disapprove of Sims’ form of artistic expression, but their own sentiments in support of that flag are misplaced and indefensible.
Although the Confederacy lost the Civil War and surrendered 150 years ago, some white folks refuse to let it go. Still fighting a war to keep blacks down and poor whites in poverty — because the slave system did not need white labor — they simply cannot escape the nineteenth century. As Euan Hague wrote in Politico Magazine in April, the passion for the Confederate flag has not ended for many Americans. Neo-Confederate sentiments seemed to be in relative hiding until the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, the symbols of the Confederacy are all around us. The state of Texas went before the U.S. Supreme Court to oppose the placement of the flag on Texas license plates. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state of Texas to require a specialized license plate containing their Confederate insignia.
Recently, students at the University of Texas at Austin passed a resolution to remove a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its prominent spot on campus. And at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Students for Education Reform are demanding the renaming of Saunders Hall — a university building which honors Confederate colonel and KKK Grand Dragon William Saunders — to Hurston Hall, in honor of Zora Neal Hurston, the first black UNC student prior to integration.
And in Alabama, Myron Penn (D-AL), a prominent black attorney and former State Senator and County Commissioner, received death threats after removing Confederate flags from soldiers’ graves in the Union Springs cemetery, which is city property. Penn, who views the flag as a symbol of oppression, was condemned by some pro-Confederate whites for “disrespecting history” and, in their view, breaking the law. The Sons of Confederate Veterans is considering legal action.
Although defenders of that flag may want to convince us that it has nothing to do with slavery, or segregation, or hating black people, we know better. After all, aside from serving as an official flag of the Confederacy and a symbol used by groups such as the Klan, the Confederate battle flag played a prominent role against the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. After the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, states such as Georgia reintroduced the flag in protest, while other states incorporated the secessionist symbol into the state flag, and others flew the battle flag on top of the state house. After Georgia changed its flag in 2003, Mississippi remains the only state flag to incorporate the Confederate emblem.
Meanwhile, last year, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — who apparently thinks racism is over because she is Indian-American and she appointed an African-American senator — dismissed calls to retire the flag that flies at the state house. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag,” Haley said.
A few months ago, I was traveling on the highway through Virginia with my family, when I saw the largest Confederate flag of all time flying high near the side of the road, in the distance. I had to explain to my five-year old son, in a manner he could understand, what that flag was and the evil that it represents for black people.
When you celebrate Memorial Day, raise a fist for John Sims. Thank him for speaking his mind and expressing his beliefs. The Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and the years of suffering of black people, and that lingering hope of some that we will return to toiling in the cotton fields, and swinging from the poplar trees if we get too uppity. This is the N-word on a pole. If America had its own version of the Nazi swastika, this would be it.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove