Finally, about the flag

Published 5:26 pm Saturday, July 11, 2015

In recent weeks, I’ve more frequently been asked why I hadn’t yet written about the flag controversy than about what my actual opinion was.

There are two reasons I hadn’t yet chimed in. First, the public reaction and, in many cases, overreaction, to the Confederate battle flag debate in light of the Charleston shootings was so rabid that I chose to let the dust settle a little before weighing in, as I like to have your undivided attention.

Secondly, I came to the realization that I had never really given the matter much thought, and therefore didn’t really have an opinion. As a damn Yankee (you know, the kind that heads south and never goes home), and a white one at that, my only real connection to the rebel flag was through my relationship with Daisy Duke and her cousins’ 1969 Dodge Charger. It is otherwise not a part of my heritage. I neither love it nor hate it. It does not cause me fear. It gives me no sense of pride. My ancestors were not slaves of Southern farm owners, and they all lived above the Mason-Dixon line. I literally have no skin in the game.

But that is not to say that I don’t understand the nature of the debate. I love the South, and there are a lot of reasons why I came to Virginia and never want to leave. Southerners — even black Southerners — are proud to be Southern and, having now spent more than half of my life in Virginia, although I’m a “come-here,” I feel more Southern than anything else. So I understand that, for some, the Confederate battle flag really is a source of pride. Kind of like wearing maroon and orange to a Hokies’ game or flying blue and orange window flags all the way to Charlottesville. In many ways, it’s a unifying symbol for many across the South. It is a symbol of heritage and history. To many who love the South, it’s an insult to be told it should come down.

If I were a Jew, and you told me that the Nazi swastika was about heritage and not hate, I’d tell you exactly where you could stick your flagpole. So if I were black and not white, I think I know what the Confederate flag would mean to me, especially if I saw it flying on the grounds of my state capitol. No matter how much progress we can claim to have made with regard to race relations and civil rights in recent decades, it is indisputable that the treatment of black people in this country has historically been abysmal. The Constitution of the United States literally counted blacks as being worth less than one human, thanks to the Three-Fifths Compromise. We were an independent country for nearly a century before the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 made it illegal to own another human being as property. In 1870, the right to vote was guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment, but was not practically applied in the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Whites literally closed schools right up the road in Prince Edward County in the 1950s rather than allow black children to attend with their own. A decade later, whites began building private academies for their children to attend after the schools were desegregated. On the old train depot in Capron, you can still see the faint letters indicating the different waiting rooms for blacks and whites. The battle flag of the Confederacy flew before Southern soldiers heading into battle in the Civil War, which was fought primarily because Southern states wanted to protect the right to own slaves. If I were black, I probably wouldn’t want to see much of that flag, either. If you told me it was about heritage and not hate, I wouldn’t believe you.

But regardless of which side of this debate you subscribe to, there’s at least one good reason we should all agree on as to why the Confederate battle flag, in any iteration, should never be flown over or on the grounds of any state house in the union. The Confederacy was a group of Southern states that basically said to heck with everyone else, they no longer wanted to be a part of the United States of America, and wanted this country as we know it to come to an end. They wanted to form their own country, and the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of that rebellion. Countless people died as a result, and the greatest nation the world has ever known almost ceased to exist before its 100th birthday. The Confederate battle flag, no matter what sort of symbol it has become for different individuals or groups, no matter whether it is viewed as an emblem of heritage or hate, is a flag that literally represents the intentional division and destruction of this country. No revisionist history, no matter what certain groups have co-opted the flag as their own, can change the fact that the Confederate battle flag was flown by those who did not want to be a part of this country. That is the real meaning of the Confederate battle flag. And unless a state is planning to secede from the union, that flag has no business being flown over another capitol building again.

What’s particularly tricky about this topic is that it has caused me to wonder how Native Americans feel when they look at the American flag. But I suppose that is another conversation for another day.

Tony Clark is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is