More than two weeks after nine people were gunned down at the historic Charleston, S.C., Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in what appeared to be a racially motivated attack, states and municipalities across the country are grappling with what to do about symbols rooted in the darkest days of the nation’s history.
In addition to the infamous Confederate battle flag used by Southern forces during the Civil War — and which the suspected 21-year-old Charleston gunman, Dylan Roof, is seen holding in one of several photographs that surfaced on social media in the days after the attack — groups of citizens are targeting the numerous roads, parks, schools and public displays honoring Confederate figures and bearing their names.
“This is a real sea change,” historian and author Marc Leepson said. “It’s rare that events in history just change radically.”
He was referring to, among other things, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, advocating for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state’s capital grounds and Wal-Mart, Amazon and other major retailers removing products bearing the image of the flag.
“Even the fact that some people who use the flag are saying now is the time to put it away is really significant,” he said.
In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is looking to recall license plates that display the flag, as is Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In Washington, D.C., there are calls to remove Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the National Cathedral’s stained glass windows.
In Baltimore County, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is pushing to rename Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland Park.
“We think the name more accurately depicts the centerpiece of this great park, but also it’s more reflective of the diversity and inclusion that we believe Baltimore County represents,” he said. “We can respect our history, but we don’t have to adore it.”
In 2009, the county took over management of the park, which is still owned by the city. Kamenetz has asked the city to approve the new name.
The county has put about $6 million in improvements into the park over the years, and Kamenetz said each time a new improvement was made, there would be comments from staff about coming up with a more inclusive name.
While Kamenetz said he started the name-changing process a few months ago, the tragedy in Charleston prompted him and his staff to accelerate the process.
Delegates Dana Stein, Shelly Hettleman and Dan Morhaim, and Sen. Bobby Zirkin, all Democrats representing District 11’s delegation in Annapolis, issued a letter in support of Kamenetz’s effort. Councilwoman Vicki Almond, whose district includes the park, said she recently discussed the issue with the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, and given that it is OK with a change, she is as well.
While similar conversations are happening in jurisdictions around the country, Leepson called the discussions unprecedented.
“The same arguments defending the flag have been out there,” he said. “I think they’ve almost evaporated because of this horrible person who killed these people in a church and brandished this battle flag.”
Leepson said the flag was made after the first Civil War battle in 1861, when the literal fog of war confused commanders as to who was who. The Confederate States of America flag was red, white and blue, with two red stripes, one white stripe and 13 stars in its final version, an eerie likeness of the flag belonging to the Union.
“Because of the guns and the cannons, there was smoke all over the place and the commanders had a difficult time telling apart the two sides,” Leepson, a Middleburg, Va., resident said. “That’s when they developed the battle flag, which you cannot ever confuse with the American flag.”
For most, displaying the flag served to honor those who fought and died well into the 20th century. It started to become controversial in the 1960s when groups of college students in the Deep South who were opposed to the civil rights movement began using it, Leepson said. While it wasn’t being overtly used in opposition to civil rights, it was used in virtually everything the groups did, he explained.
Fast-forward to 2015, when today, many acknowledge the battle flag as a symbol of hate, as Kamenetz said in regard to the license plate issue.
“It resonates as a symbol of hate. Why promote it?” he said. “We wouldn’t want a swastika on a license plate; it’s no different.”
Leepson agreed with that analogy, adding that because license plates are government-issued, forbidding a symbol on them is not a First Amendment issue. The Supreme Court appeared to endorse that viewpoint, deciding last month that Texas, which allows citizen groups to propose new commemorative license plates, could forbid the issuing of plates bearing the Confederate battle flag.
In Richmond, the former capital city of the Confederacy, Temple Beth-El Rabbi Emeritus Gary S. Creditor said things have changed.
“It’s been a revolution in the South in terms of its attitudes and its memories,” Creditor said. “The world around here has changed.”
But he still sees people holding on to the battle flag.
“There are people who are very resentful over the changing demographics of this country, so the battle flag doesn’t have to endorse ‘I want slavery,’” he said. “It can be ‘I don’t want to deal with people different than me.’”
With Richmond’s historic and modern-day segregation, with pockets of deep black poverty, Creditor feels that removal of the flag is appropriate. As recent as 1993, when he bought a house, there was a clause in his contract about not selling it to “Negroes,” he said.
While he is not advocating for the removal of all namesakes and statues of Confederate figures — something he doesn’t see gaining traction in a city with bigger issues to deal with — he does think places such as Monument Avenue in Richmond, which has several statues of Confederate figures, can be more inclusive of history. He’d like to see more monuments like that of African-American Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and tennis star who can also be found on Monument Avenue.
But for descendants of the more than 10,000 Jewish Confederate soldiers, the issue isn’t so black and white. Pikesville resident Carl Berenholtz, who is the Sons of Confederate Veterans Maryland Division’s judge advocate, found that his great-great-uncle served in the Confederate Army. Michael Nufbaum came to America prior to the Civil War, leaving his family in Germany where they couldn’t own land, vote or hold public office, and landed in the South.
As shop owners from small villages, many German Jews looked to the agrarian South rather than the big city, Berenholtz said. Nufbaum settled in San Antonio, Texas, and enlisted in the Fourth Texas Light Artillery at 37 when the war started.
“He was fighting for one reason and one reason only, and that was state’s rights,” Berenholtz said. “He thought fighting for that fact would provide later on for the ability of Jews, his family in particular, to own land, vote, hold public office, et cetera, and that’s what he fought for.”
According to Berenholtz’s research, the Jewish soldiers were consciously not fighting in favor of slavery, given their people’s history. He is not in favor of taking down flags and removing Confederate figures from public display. For him, it’s a slippery slope, and he noted that slave ships carried the American flag.
“This is our history. Are you going to deny history? Are you going to change everything?” he asked. “I see that flag, it has nothing to do, for me, [with] slavery. It is, to me, about the second revolution, shaping our Constitution.”
The photo, like several in the Washington Post, is seriously biased. The Post’s photo was from a retail outlet of the racist, secessionist hate group, League of the South. Yours is of some obvious crackpot. That is similar to portraying Pamela Geller or Meyer Kahane as typical of all Jews.
It is exactly 50 years overdue to remove the Confederate flag from public display, especially from the SC state house. However, contrary to Post reports, it was NOT put on the capital dome in 1961 or ’62 for racist reasons. Gov. Fritz Hollings signed the legislation purely as a commemoration of the Centennial of the war. It was intended to come down in April 1965. By then, Hollings was a U.S. Senator so gone from the scene. He has been saying for 15 or 20 years that was his intent. That it remained after 1965 was initially racial, a show of defiance against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the attendant demonstrations. But let’s not distort the history.
Before about 1963, the Confederate flag had no racial connotation. That is why older baby boomers and older Southerners have such a difficult time accepting that Northerners and African-Americans cannot recognize its earlier values as a positive regional symbol generally, and a memorial to fallen ancestors for many. The first time I saw the flag used for a racist purpose on TV was probably the summer of 1963 (’62?) by segregationist protestors not in the South, but in the Land of Lincoln in Cairo, Ill. Was equally angry at the racist use and that it was being trashed by Yankees.
The flag was ubiquitous in the South of the 1950s and ’60s as a non-racial regional symbol. Moderate Southerners were angry over its abuse by segregationists starting in the mid-60s. It was painted on every plumber’s and electrician’s truck. It was a school or college flag in many areas, including those recently desegregated. It was on bags of Dixie Crystal sugar. It was on Dixie Cups. It was on the Richmond Jewish-owned Dixie Hi-Fi (later Circuit City when it expanded outside the South). It was waved at every high school and many college football games.
In 1961, National Geographic, other national magazines, gasoline company road maps all featured crossed Confederate and U.S. flags on commemorative publications. There was no hint of racism.
Starting in the mid-1960s, it is fair to say that the flag took on a dual meaning. That is sad, and it is indeed time for it to be removed from public property other than museums or historical events. However, we should remember that the overwhelming use has always been commemorative and regional pride, and not racism. The latter is a wrong impression given by biased reporting in the Northern media, as emphasized by that awful photo leading this article.