"Does the South surrender?" is the question some are asking today, in the wake of South Carolina's House of Representatives' decision to remove the Confederate Flag from capitol grounds. But the question is misplaced.
When I was a young law student, I spent a summer in northern India studying comparative constitutional law and international human rights law. I spent most of my time in Shimla (a stunning and romantic town where many Indians honeymoon) and Dharamasala (the primarily Buddhist city where the seat of the Tibetan government in exile is located). While there, surrounded by ancient Hindu and Buddhist shrines and symbols, I saw - for the first time in my life - the swastika pictured somewhere other than a history book. It was not very common, but it appeared a few times during my stay. On a bracelet here or an ancient work of art there. It was quickly explained to me that the swastika is an age-old symbol found worldwide, with roots not only in India but also used in the art of Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Celts, Native Americans, Persians, Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. While its meaning is different in each culture, in none of those cultures did it ever represent anything other than positive harmony and good fortune. By the time Hitler adopted the swastika as a symbol of his brutal dictatorship based on fascism and violent notions of white supremacy, the Buddhists had been using it for more than 2,500 years to represent universal harmony. This was my first experience with a symbol that could hold polar opposite meanings for different people. It is beyond debate that the horrific brutality of Hitler's regime and its slaughter of millions of innocents, many of them children, forever converted the meaning conveyed by the swastika - at least in western society. That Hitler changed the symbol slightly (twisted it 45 degrees and changed its usual color representation) is totally irrelevant. That it meant something different to a Buddhist living in India is also irrelevant.
Just as significantly, components of Hitler's regime that may be considered distinct from the Third Reich's fascist principals do nothing to soften the blow of the swastika as a symbol of hatred. Indeed, Hitler's Germany was responsible for the advent or rocket engines and jet propulsion. The Third Reich built dams, railroads, and the first national highway system. All of this at a time when the Stock Market Crash of 1929 (which caused the U.S. government to call in its loans to Germany) helped spiral Germany into severe economic depression, with unemployment at 15% and vast homelessness and starvation.
Yet, it seems obvious to us that if a German government office were to display the Third Reich's flag, claiming with it comes their expression of pride in the development of the Autobahn, we would consider this not only absurd, but also a justification of the worst of human evil. Our hearts would drop at the sight of the flag, and we would demand it be taken down.
Because as far as the swastika's symbolism is concerned, it is immaterial that the Third Reich did things other than massacre millions of innocent children with plans of expanding its white supremacy to the world through illegal and violent war and domination. And for a German to wish to express his German pride in those advances, flying the flag is not an option. Because without a doubt, that flag also represents the horrors of Hitler. A regime so based in the most vile and heinous of human behavior that anything external to that is camouflaged. And because this symbolism is internalized not only by the many millions of innocents and descendants of innocents, but also to those who revere hold Hitler's ideals.
Slavery began in America in 1501 (with the arrival of African slaves to what is now the Dominican Republic), and was legally established in approximately 1641 (at which time Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery). It did not end until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Two hundred years later. Slaves were human beings considered to be nothing more than property. They were beaten, raped, and killed with impunity. Hundreds of years of horrifically brutal indentured servitude, assault, and murder of millions upon millions of innocent human beings. During this time, America was part of a slave trade that involved the importation of slaves shipped across the Atlantic, many of whom would die in the journey alone. Quickly, however, the American slave trade became "self-sustaining" because the children of American slaves were enslaved themselves. Children raised by the very old and the very young in their slave communities (as their mothers were expected to return to work). Some put to work as toddlers. Many suffering the most grotesque of human rights violations.
There can be no debate that the civil war largely concerned the Southern states desire to secede and run themselves without any interference from the Federal Government - in other words, they no longer desired to be a part of the United States of America. It is widely understood (though disputed by some) that nearly every reason for secession is chiefly related to slavery. The Southern states were fighting for "state rights v. federal rights." But more specifically, they were fighting for their states' rights to maintain legalization of a horrific social order rooted in white supremacist ideals and economic greed, namely, slavery. The Southern states were also fighting for economic rights. But again, the main issue was the economics of slavery - the South's one-crop economy depended on this free labor to remain profitable. The South and the North disagreed on the laws affecting new states admitted to the union. Specifically, as to whether or not the new states should be slave or free (a fight that came to a head on the floor of the senate when anti-slavery proponent Charles Sumner was beat over the head by South Carolina's Senator Preston Brooks). And, of course, the election of Abraham Lincoln, chiefly his abolitionist positions.
There were other issues. Land rights were an issue, as was trade and tariffs. Significantly, many in the South abhorred slavery and opposed it, while some in the North owned slaves. Without a doubt, many who fly it today are well-meaning people who wish no ill will upon anyone on the basis of their race or creed (I know and have met some of these people). And there are a group of revisionists who insist that the history books must be re-interpreted because the North really did not go to war over slavery at all.
All of this, however, does very little if anything to rescue the symbolism of the Confederate Flag as that symbolism exists today. Just as it matters little that the Buddhists used the swastika to symbolize harmony or that the Third Reich also fought for Germany's economic stability and invented jet engines.
When war struck between the North and the South, as four million human beings were held in bondage in the South, the flag waived by slave owners and the army justifying their rights to own other humans was the Confederate Flag (or more specifically, the Confederate Battle Flag).
Today, flying the flag is certainly not limited to the South or to Southerners and is instead used by many who lack any Southern heritage. It was prevalently flown by the KKK and continues to be a component of KKK marches. White supremacists fly it, as do members of the Aryan Nations. South Carolina in particular - the first state to leave the union in 1860 - only restored the Confederate Flag in the capitol grounds 50 years ago in an explicit protest at the civil rights movement. There can also be no doubt that, by and large, the descendants of slaves today view the Confederate Flag as a symbol of their ancestor's enslavement and their own ongoing struggles in the face of racism.
Today, the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate Flag from capitol grounds. Whether the flag is inherently racist or was stolen by racists who are demonizing an otherwise wholesome Southern heritage, it hardly matters. Whether it always represented racist philosophies or was misappropriated by racists, it now widely represents un-American and inhumane ideals of violent white supremacy - not just to the millions of innocents, but also to those who hold those fascist notions dear.
Of course, none of this means that flying the Confederate Flag should be illegal. In Germany, it is illegal to fly the flag of the Third Reich. This can never happen in America, simply because of our First Amendment. Regardless of a person's reasons for flying the flag, the First Amendment protects their right to do so. The question is not whether individuals should maintain that right. Nor is the question whether the South has finally surrendered its battle to the North.
Rather, the question answered by the South Carolina House of Representatives today is whether their state government, as a political and democratic institution representing constituents of all races, should maintain on its capitol grounds the very flag it placed there 50 years ago to protest the civil rights movement.
The answer to that question is an easy one. Just as it was hoisted in opposition to equal rights, the flag's removal symbolizes an end to that opposition.
And the symbolism of that is not one of surrender.
It is a symbol of the honor that comes along not with simply tolerating human rights, but promoting them. A symbol of respect for the millions whose lives remain stained by this nation's dark history of slavery. It is a moment of dignity for those of our country's citizens who were expected to bear the humiliation of a state sponsorship of a flag that not only they, but those who hate them for the color of their skin, deem a symbol of that hatred.
Today, South Carolina welcomed a new era of celebrating the positive components of Southern heritage without the use of symbolism that tarnishes those elements.
May others follow suit.
By Shermin Kruse
Author of Butterfly Stitching
Many thanks for your "likes", "shares," "tweets", and thoughtful commentary. Dynamic and respectful conversation is welcomed and appreciated. Yours, Shermin