Commentary

Don’t Put Slavery in the Flag

On April 17 Mississippi voters will decide whether to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag. As in other states where this controversy has flared, emotions are running high. An activist who wants to keep the flag says, “We’ll lose our heritage [and] our history.” A black state legislator says, “When I see that flag, it tells me that Mississippi still cherishes and honors a time when my great-grandmother was marched all the way from Selma, Alabama, to Ebenezer, Mississippi, and sold as a slave.”

Strong feelings. Irreconcilable demands. Different views of history. What’s a voter to do?

It seems that I have every reason to side with the defenders of the flag: I grew up in the South during the centennial of the Civil War—or, as we called it, the War Between the States, or in particularly defiant moments, the War of Northern Aggression. My great-grandfather was a Confederate sympathizer whose movements were limited by the occupying Union army. I’ve campaigned against political correctness and the federal leviathan. I think there’s a good case for secession in the government of a free people. I even wrote a college paper on the ways in which the Confederate Constitution was superior to the U.S. Constitution.

Much as I’d like to join this latest crusade for Southern heritage and defiance of the federal government, though, I keep coming back to one question: What does the flag mean?

The spin doctors of the South would have us believe that the flag just stands for a part of history. Yet Mississippi was once part of France, and nobody’s proposing to put the fleur de lis on the state flag. Not all our history demands official commemoration.

More broadly, the spinners say that the Civil War was about states’ rights, or taxes, or tariffs or the meaning of the Constitution. Indeed, it was about all those things. But at bottom the South seceded, not over some abstract notion of states’ rights, but over the right of the Southern states to practice human slavery. As Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia put it in his proclamation commemorating the Civil War, “Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war.” Mississippi didn’t go to war for lower tariffs or for constitutional theory; it went to war to protect white Mississippians’ right to buy and sell black Mississippians.

Given that, the Confederate emblem in the state flag can’t be separated from slavery. So is it legitimate for a majority of the voters of Mississippi to endorse a state flag that seems to celebrate slavery?

The political philosopher Jacob T. Levy of the University of Chicago points out that official state symbols are very different from privately displayed symbols. The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to display Confederate battle flags, Che Guevara posters and vulgar bumper stickers. But official symbols – flags, license plates, national parks – are a different matter. As Levy writes: “When the state speaks … it claims to speak on behalf of all its members… . Democratic states, especially, claim that their words and actions in some sense issue from the people as a whole.”

The current Mississippi flag – three bars of red, white and blue along with the Confederate cross – cannot be thought to represent the values of all the people of the state. Indeed, it doesn’t just misrepresent the values of Mississippi’s one million black citizens; it is actively offensive to many of them. As Levy writes, “Citizens ought not to be insulted or degraded by an agency that professes to represent them and to speak in their name.” Can we doubt that black Mississippians feel insulted and degraded by their state flag?

As long as the violence and cruelty of slavery remain a living memory to millions of Americans, symbols of slavery should not be displayed by American governments. Those who want to honor their brave ancestors who fought for Southern independence should fly the Confederate flag themselves, tend to Confederate graves and hold Southern Heritage picnics. They should not ask their fellow citizens to walk into a state capitol under a banner that proclaims the superiority of some citizens to others.

David Boaz is executive vice president.