By JOHN M. CRISP
One might think that interest in the heritage of the Old South would have a natural half-life and that, as the events of 1861-1865 recede into the past, so would our infatuation with the symbols of that conflict.
But as recently as last month the mayor of Franklin, Tenn., endured considerable criticism for urging participants in the commemoration of the 142nd anniversary of the Battle of Franklin to display the Second Confederate National Flag rather than the more well known and symbolically volatile Confederate Battle Flag. Complainants called his Southern pedigree into question.
Meanwhile in Alvin, Texas, which is hardly a bastion of the Old South, two boys in middle school are fighting the administration for the right to wear the flag, one on his backpack and the other on a belt buckle. In Mississippi a corner of the state flag is still prominently occupied by the flag, and in Georgia a few citizens are insisting that the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy be restored to their state flag, as well.
I suspect that at least some of this interest is perpetuated by the Internet, where sites trafficking in Confederate symbolism have proliferated. Let’s face it: the Confederate battle flag is a handsome banner whose connection to a very dramatic period in our history is attractive. Generally, the preservation of heritage is desirable. But it’s impossible to glean merely the good out of a given set of symbols; they often have another set of less attractive meanings that can’t be eliminated.
In the attempt to control them, however, many of the Confederate Web sites traffic in ideas, as well as in flags and lapel pins. You can buy books like “The South Was Right.” You can discover that Abraham Lincoln was actually a white supremacist. You can learn that, really, in many respects blacks were actually better off before emancipation. It’s not hard to see why the ideas connected to the symbols that many want to preserve make some of our fellow black citizens extremely uncomfortable.
An anecdote: On June 14, 2005, I was meandering along back roads near an imaginary line that separates West Texas from East Texas, past Cross Plains and Rising Star. This is lovely country with green hills that grow progressively more forested as you travel east. Gradually the land and the culture become more Southern than Southwestern.
A few miles past Sipe Springs, on a very rural road, I stopped at a gravel pullout where a Confederate flag was flying on a tall flagpole. Near the road was a four-sided stone pyramid, 10 or 11 feet tall, with a small cannonball on top, painted black. On the side of the pyramid was a large bronze plaque with this inscription:
“Following the war between the states (1861-1865) many Confederate veterans who had so faithfully fought to defend their homes and country against the ravaging yankee invaders found little left on their return and set out for a new life in Texas. During the 1870’s these courageous pioneers settled northwest Comanche County. These veterans established farms, schools and churches and brought the blessings of Anglo-Saxon civilization to the frontier. To the honor and memory of these brave patriots this memorial is dedicated by their grateful descendents on the 3rd day of June, A.D. 2005, at Sipe Springs.”
At least three things are worth noting:
_ “Ravaging yankee invaders:” A deep sense of grievance persists.
_ “Blessings of Anglo-Saxon civilization:” The sense of exclusion is unmistakable.
_ Finally _ and this is the part that sent a mild shiver along my spine _ this monument isn’t a relic from the past that was erected during, say, the ’60s, in reaction to forced integration. It had been dedicated less than two weeks prior to my visit. Suddenly, the quiet countryside was even quieter, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the misgivings of a black American standing beside that ominously remote rural road.
There are good people in Comanche County, but their own geography betrays an ironic misunderstanding of what the weave of our American fabric is really like. You can check this in an atlas, but I swear the next town to the east of Sipe Springs is De Leon. And the one after that: Dublin.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. For more news and information visit www.scrippsnews.com.)