Friday, March 23, 2007
From The Chicago Tribune…
Flag protesters missing a point
By Steven Lubet
professor of law at Northwestern University
What is the proper way to hang a Confederate flag? According to artist John Sims, it’s from a noose. Not everyone agrees, of course, especially in the South. So it is unsurprising that protests quickly followed when the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science, in Tallahassee, Fla., displayed Sims’ installation of a Confederate flag suspended from 13-foot gallows. According to Robert Hurst, commander of the Tallahassee camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it is offensive to show disrespect for the Confederate flag, which should be treated as a revered symbol of Southern heritage.
More than 140 years after the Civil War, defenders of the Confederate flag continue to fight a rear-guard action, proudly waving the standard while claiming that it stands for nothing more than pride in their ancestry and nostalgia for a vanished way of life. Denying that the flag has any association with slavery or segregation, they often seek its return to public prominence, notwithstanding the protests of civil rights organizations. For example, the Sons of Confederate Veterans boasts a “Flags Across Florida” project, seeking to “put Confederate flags on Florida’s major roads.”
But is it true that you can separate the Confederate flag from the institution of slavery? Is it possible to long for the antebellum South--and its vanished dream of independence--without recalling that nearly 4 million men and women were held in bondage?
Any candid historical appraisal of the Confederacy has to recognize that it was motivated by slavery, built on slavery and deeply committed to slavery. Attempts to deny that relationship are naive at best and dishonest at worst. Here are some indisputable facts.
On Dec. 24, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to declare its secession from the Union. Its Declaration of Causes included 18 references to the sanctity of slavery, repeatedly justifying secession as necessary to protect the “right to hold property in slaves.” Indeed, the declaration gives only one reason for secession: The Northern states “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery. … They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.” They have elected a president “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”
Other state secession decrees were to the same effect. Alabama proclaimed its intention to unite with the “slaveholding states of the South.” Texas condemned the Lincoln administration as “a weapon with which to strike down the interests and property of the people of Texas and her sister slaveholding states.” Virginia bemoaned “the oppression of the Southern slaveholding states.”
The Confederate Constitution itself was explicit about the heart of its enterprise. Its “Bill of Rights” stated that no law “denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed.”
It is true, of course, that the great majority of Confederate soldiers were not slaveholders. Most of the enlisted men fought for their homes, families and comrades-in-arms rather than for the abstract principles of a distant government. But there is still no escaping the fact that defense of the Confederacy meant the perpetuation of slavery for millions of African-Americans. It is impossible to separate the war from the cause.
So if you are tempted to think there might be something benign, or even admirable, about the Confederate flag, just remember that we pledge allegiance not only to the flag of the United States of America, but also “to the republic for which it stands.” In the case of the Confederacy, the republic undeniably stood for slavery, which is something that John Sims’ provocative artwork will not allow us to forget.
[Steven Lubet is a professor of law at Northwestern University.]