Symbols evoke emotions. They have a power to evoke images and send messages to our subconscious. They tell us what is important. Think of the crucifix, the Star of David, the swastika. Or the confederate flag. When presented with a symbol often enough, the repetition can influence our actions. Presented repeatedly to a group it becomes part of the collective unconscious, influencing a whole society.
Those of us born into the South grew up with the confederate battle flag as part of the backdrop of life. Any visit to a historical site, and its attendant gift shop, came with the understanding that, well, you were born in the South, so this is your flag. For many whites, it doesn’t start as racism. Racism is learned, and depends greatly upon your family and friends. My family did not raise me to be a racist (for which I thank them). My grandfather, however, was an old, Southern redneck, whose language included words only a President can use when he discusses racism. But our mother told us if she EVER caught her little girls using that word, there’d be hell to pay.
In 1963, a bomb blast killed 4 little girls in Birmingham. I was 10 years old at the time. Racists in Alabama killed little girls like me. Little girls, dressed for bible school in their Sunday best. Why? Little girls weren’t a danger to anybody! Why would they do this? I didn’t understand. But I was old enough to sense the change that event made in every adult who was part of my world. This was going too far. This was awful, low, and disgusting. It was a pivot point in our cultural history. White Americans who had ignored the Civil Rights movement woke up. This was outrageous. Things had to change. Separate water fountains had to go--separate hotels, separate restaurants, separate entrances and seating, separate shopping days in small Southern towns. They all had to go. Civil rights legislation was passed. But at a price.
Now another event has exacted a price. The murdered this time are adults. Some rather close to me in age. All victims of a man whose life was hijacked by a symbol. A symbol whose meaning has changed over time. And again, our world is changing as a result.
Those few whites who still claim the confederate battle flag is a symbol of their heritage may be stating something they believe to be true. They may think of hooped skirts and aristocratic gentry, but conveniently ignore that the life style they admire was supported by slavery, and there was no one, without the other. They are fooling themselves. They refuse to recognize that the symbol they claim is benign was long ago usurped by those who can support their own egos only by thinking less of others. Usurped by those who are racist. Those whose demands for ‘small government’ began post-civil war as a means of denying government services to former slaves. Those who created separate-but-equal, which was anything but. This was their symbol. And it has no place in the modern world.
The meaning of symbols can change. The swastika began as a decorative element for clothing before taking on connotations of ‘auspiciousness’ in Indian religions. It was adopted by Hitler’s army for that reason. To us, today, it no longer connotes ‘auspiciousness’ but rather the ravages and hatred of World War II and Nazi Germany. As a symbol, it has changed. So has the meaning of the confederate battle flag. It is no more appropriate to carry it down our streets, display in public, or decorate graveyards than it would be to do so with the swastika.
It is time to put away the symbol of our ancestors. This flag must not be allowed to be a part of our lives. Putting it away from us is another small step on the road to equality. And one we must all take.