As a professional historian and teacher of American history, the civil rights movement and courses on institutional racism — and as a published writer on issues of race and history for more than 50 years — I have studied the issue of race and racism for decades.
What I contend here is informed by research, reading and experience. Both professional historians and all reflective peoples are compelled to follow basic rules of historical evidence:
- We don’t get to make stuff up.
- We don’t get to believe whatever we want or prefer.
- When the preponderance of evidence is overwhelming and definitive, it needs to be acknowledged and not subjected to a false equivalency as if there are two legitimate sides to, in this case, what the Confederate flag placed in its historical context means.
This issue, of course, has been in the news recently because of the concerns many University of Wisconsin-La Crosse students had after they saw a construction truck displaying the Confederate flag on campus.
The preponderance of evidence and overwhelming weight of history amassed by historians is clear and unequivocal as it relates to the flag:
- It does not represent state’s rights separate from slavery.
- It does not represent resistance to northern oppression.
- It does not represent unfettered individual freedom.
- It represents a system of slavery that permeated southern economics, politics and social structures and a system of northern complicity and an equally pervasive northern racism.
- It represents a system that by most historical accounts over several centuries resulted in the deaths of approximately 15 million people of African descent and the lifetime enslavement of close to 15 million more.
- It represents the legalization and institutionalization of murder on a mass scale, kidnapping, theft, institutionalized rape and sexual assault, privatized rape and sexual assault, the construction of forced labor camps and in some cases death camps mistakenly called plantations.
- It was unequivocally the symbol of the rebellion of the Confederate States of America, whose sole consistent distinguishing feature by the admission of its own political leadership was slavery.
That system of stolen labor, extortion and death, all justified under a contrived ideology of white supremacy, built the economic foundation of the national prosperity of the United States and its subsequent industrial, commercial and financial empire worldwide. That flag is a symbol every bit as reprehensible as the Nazi swastika of Germany’s Third Reich, but worse for us because it is our history.
It is a symbol of a lost cause, and that lost cause was slavery and white supremacy.
To pretend that the Confederate flag means something other than that is deeply misinformed, historically inaccurate and conveys a fundamental ignorance of historical reality. It does fall clearly within the context of “making stuff up,” and “believing what you want to believe” and is not worthy as an argument of either intellectual or historical credibility.