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Batavick: Flag's resurgence was as symbol of oppression

I am a big believer in the marketplace of ideas, whether it's a newspaper's op-ed page with letters to the editor or a county commissioners' meeting. It is important for all citizens to have an opportunity to exchange and challenge ideas in the pursuit of what they believe to be objective truth.

The op-ed column I wrote for June 19 certainly elicited the most responses of anything I've done so far. Surprisingly for this Republican county, emails were approximately 70/30 in favor of my assertion that the Old South is now the New South and a classic example of putting old wine in new bottles. What no doubt spurred reactions from readers was the horrible shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly committed by a white man with white-supremacist views, and the almost immediate debate over enduring symbols of the Confederacy, like the rebel flag. Since then many retailers and some states have moved to return the Confederate flag to the attic of memory where it might find company with an assortment of moth-eaten hoods and robes.

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The biggest criticism of my column was that it appeared to let the Democrats off the hook. I was reminded that the Democratic Party had been the party of segregation and Jim Crow laws and the Republican Party that of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. There is no denying this, but my critics' history lesson went only so far. They neglected to account for the South's reaction to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That evening President Johnson ruefully said to special assistant Bill Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."

Johnson proved prescient. During the presidential campaign of 1968, Republican nominee Richard Nixon crafted a Southern Strategy to lure disenchanted whites who had voted Democratic since the days of Reconstruction. Appealing to a "silent majority" under the coded banner of "law and order," Nixon promised to bring an end to the civil strife that racked the nation as a result of the race riots following Martin Luther King's assassination and the increasingly violent Vietnam War protests.

The ploy worked in the South, and Nixon handily won Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. He didn't get Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi because they ended up in the electoral votes column of third-party candidate and avowed segregationist, George Wallace. During the election of 1972, Nixon ran the table and won these states too, thus cementing the South for the GOP for generations to come.

Southern Democrats' disenchantment with their party began in 1948 when President Truman integrated the armed forces and the Dems adopted a civil rights plank in their presidential platform. In protest, Southern politicians began calling themselves Dixiecrats. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond ran for president that year as the States' Rights Democratic Party candidate. He received 39 electoral votes.

The new party's symbol was the Confederate Battle Flag. Long relegated to musty museums, the flag of secession and sedition was soon adopted by Georgia to protest Brown v. Board of Education. Segregationist Gov. George Wallace then set it flying over the Alabama legislature, and South Carolina hoisted it over the state capitol in 1962.

These states certainly didn't stage all of this flag pageantry in fond memory of a collective Southern heritage, or to sound a note of solemn respect for the Civil War dead, or even to launch an appeal to history-minded tourists. The flag was an aggressive symbol of opposition to the civil rights movement and the campaign for black equality and represented a yearning for the old order when white power reigned. That's why flying the Confederate flag in your front yard or wearing it emblazoned on a T-shirt may be NASCAR-cool but an affront to our African-American neighbors. (Yes, I know that NASCAR now bans the flag, but race fans still have a right to don it as a provocative fashion accessory.)

The path from 1948 to 2015 is pretty direct and even predictable. The civil rights movement caused two parties to switch places, and now it's the party of Lincoln using the premise of states' rights to install voting restrictions that largely impact minorities. It's just another chapter in the continuing saga of how the Old South became the New South.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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