This July 4th, three Confederate flags appeared outside my house in Gettysburg. It was the first day of the reenactment of the battle at Gettysburg 150 years ago, and some Confederate reenactors walked down the middle of the street carrying the flags. Though they never saw me on my front porch, I was surprised how uncomfortable this display made me.
As a 21st century light-skinned black college professor, I have only the dimmest inkling of how most African Americans 150 years ago experienced racism nearly every day. When Lee's army moved through Pennsylvania towns in 1863, free black women, men, and children confronted the ultimate racism by fighting Confederate soldiers trying to drag them south of the Mason Dixon Line. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of black American citizens were enslaved to the Confederate Army or sold to white southerners who desperately needed more labor.
During Gettysburg's 150th commemoration, hundreds of flags flew -- planted at battlefield monuments, on a commemorative walk of Pickett's charge, at reenactments, in restaurants, and on the backs of motorcycles. And by far most of them, judging by my unscientific survey as I circled around town and battlefield roads, were Confederate battle flags.
I've always thought the display of the Confederate battle flag was understandable at reenactments that seek historically accuracy, or at the foot of battlefield monuments. While I did not intend to honor those who fought for the Confederacy, I understood the wish of their ancestors to do so.
Flags represent the community or nation for which they fly. The American flag symbolizes the country's founding ideals of freedom and independence, protected by law against tyranny. For me, seeing the American flag flying stick-straight in the wind stirs pride, yearning, and pain: pride in those who fought in battlefields, town halls, and courts of law for the ideals that flag represents; yearning for the day when those ideals will be fully realized for every American, and pain for all who suffer when we fail -- sometimes purposefully -- to stay true to those ideals.
As an army brat in Heidelberg, West Germany, I watched my father and other soldiers in uniform driving home around the parade ground of Campbell Barracks get out of their cars and stand at attention as the color guard glided the flag down the pole that stood just inside the barrack gates. That left an indelible impression. As did going through the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and witnessing the stark difference between freedom in West Berlin, and the drab, oppressively gray atmosphere of communist East Berlin in the mid-1970s. For me, then and now, the American flag symbolizes some of humanity's highest aspirations: a stand for independence, and a stand against oppressive regimes that deny freedom.
What did the flags of the Confederacy stand for? The battle flag, from some "heritage, not hate" perspectives, simply represented Confederate soldiers' valor and commitment to one another. But as one historian wrote, flags "are chosen as epitomes of the sentiments prevailing at the time of their adoption." In the spring of 1863, the Confederate government debated changing the official flag in order to distinguish it more clearly from the Union flag, which represented the end of slavery. One southern writer declared that the official Confederate national flag wasn't good enough "on account of its resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting."
In 1863 Confederates established their new official national flag. Placing the battle flag that "was endeared to every Confederate heart" on a snow-white field to symbolize "our extreme purity and innocence," it was "a suitable emblem of our young confederacy, and, sustained by the brave strong arms of the south" would soon "be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN'S FLAG." Another writer saw it as "the symbol of the white man's cause."
The harsh reality is that this flag symbolized the Confederacy's cause: The establishment of a country that depended upon maintaining the systematic denial of independence and freedom to black men, women, and children. It doesn't matter how ideologically committed Confederate soldiers were to that cause. That is the cause to which the Confederate government was committed. The history of all Confederate flags is one of treason: They represented a violent refusal to maintain a commitment to the ideals upon which the country was founded. That's why during the war many Americans called secessionists traitors, and why songs like "Our Battle Flag" -- which was about the American flag -- included the line "it e'er shall wave o'er treason's grave." That's why Confederate soldiers kidnapped free black American citizens from Gettysburg and sold them into slavery -- those soldiers were simply living out the ideals that the Confederate flag symbolized.
Today, this historical reality is not reenacted. Reenactments of Gettysburg and other battles are racially sanitized. The Confederate battle flag can be perceived as simply representing the bravery and camaraderie of soldiers, instead of as symbols of white supremacy and the right to own black people and profit from their labor. The myth that separates courage in battle from the cause of racial slavery simply gets perpetuated by continuing to fly the Confederate flag at America's battlefields.
After the 150th commemoration, I no longer think the Confederate battle flag belongs at Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, or any other battlefields. They should be banned. Any planted at monuments should be uprooted and thrown out.
Until reenactors at Gettysburg are willing to reenact the whole story of what the Confederate soldiers did during and after the battle so that tourists get a complete picture of what happened -- including kidnapping African Americans -- no Confederate battle flags should be flown as part of any commemoration here. We should not honor or respect the symbols of any government or soldier who not only fought for ideals directly opposed to the central founding ideals of our country, but were willing to kill those who stood in their way. We don't fly the flag of traitors.