Time for the South to surrender

Published 10:38 pm Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reasonable people have suggested that removing Confederate flags from capitols, symbols from license plates, and products from Walmart shelves is mere symbolism, but it’s more than that. By recognizing that flying the Confederate flag is a continuation of a treasonous act motivated by racial hatred, we can end what amounts to a 150-year-long Civil War re-enactment and move the South into what Abraham Lincoln called its “proper practical relation” to the rest of the county.

At long last, it is time for the South to surrender.

The flag that is getting pulled down all over the Confederacy was not just a battle flag but an instrument of war. P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate general who adopted the “Dukes of Hazzard” flag, did so because then, he said, “We would then on the field of battle know our friends from our Enemies.”

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That essential division bedeviled the country. Were we friends or enemies? By seceding, did the Confederate states cease to belong to the Union? Or were they traitors Americans all along? Lincoln brushed this aside, calling this question “a merely pernicious abstraction.” His goal, which should be ours, was not retribution but reconstruction, and he wasn’t talking about rebuilding houses. He wanted reconciliation. Lincoln wanted the Union to survive.

Four days after Lincoln gave his speech on reconstruction, a Confederate assassin killed him, and the United States has been at odds with the South ever since, from lynchings to the KKK to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Era to Nixon’s Southern Strategy to Lee Atwater to the systematic disenfranchisement of black Americans to a white supremacist murdering nine black parishioners in Charleston.

This should have ended 150 years ago. Let it end now.

I am not unmindful of history’s pull. The Stanfords originally came from Ireland to South Carolina in the 1800s, eventually ending up in Texas in 1862 after they were run out of a pro-Union county in Arkansas. The patriarch, Reverend Thomas Stanford, was a Methodist preacher who backed the Confederacy. You can’t choose your family, but you do get to decide what to do with your inheritance.

I have both friends and relatives who decry slavery and modern-day discrimination but venerate the honor with which their boys fought for the Confederacy. Indeed, our military recognizes this and has appropriated some Confederate history and insignia in our common tradition. That this can be true does not in any way, however, mean we should continue to tolerate, if not celebrate, a flag that was carried into battle to defend slavery and white supremacy.

Taking down the Confederate flag is a good first step that loses meaning if that is where we stop. As Chris Tomlinson suggested in Tomlinson, Hill—his terrific history of his own family’s slaveholding heritage—we should establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to agree on a common version of what happened. We need to find the minimal moral courage to stop teaching that the South rebelled over states’ rights and tariffs. And someone had a heck of an idea about making Juneteenth a national holiday.

But that would be just a start toward what Lincoln had in mind. In his speech on reconstruction, he imagined “giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man.” Making sure everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, can vote and has an equal shot at getting a decent public education are tasks we have yet to complete for Mr. Lincoln.

When Commander Joshua Chamberlain accepted the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, he noted the care with which the defeated troops folded their battle flags. “Only the Flag of the Union greets the sky!” he wrote in his memoir.

Take the Confederate flags down wherever they fly, because the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Accept this gesture as the long overdue surrender of what some laughably still call The Lost Cause. Some of us mean it when we pledge allegiance to the flag—the American one, mind you—and we all have a lot of work to do if we’re going to realize Lincoln’s vision for the Union.