Southern writers John Grisham, Kathryn Stockett, and Richard Ford, as part of a larger group, have called for the state of Mississippi to remove the Confederate emblem from the state’s flag. Their words:
“It is simply not fair, or honorable, to ask black Mississippians to attend schools, compete in athletic events, work in the public sector, serve in the National Guard, and go about their normal lives with a state flag that glorifies a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. It’s time for Mississippi to fly a flag for all its people.”
I would comment that the social struggle to remove the Confederate emblem from present-day Southern flags and government buildings is not, and never was, an issue involving African-Americans alone. Everyone in this country, no matter what his or her race, has a stake in seeing to it that such emblems are removed and placed instead where they belong, in museums. No one denies the historical significance of slavery, or the great war that was fought in this country to free those so enslaved. Nor does anyone deny the historical significance of “states’ rights”–the idea that animated the southern rebellion in the first place, although it must be admitted that the only state right the Confederacy ever cared about was the right to enslave people. The war and the reconstruction that followed, however, settled these issues. We’re done with them, and despite the slow progress of civil rights in America, we’ve been done with them for a long time.
We cannot and should not forget the conflicts of the past, lest we repeat them in the future. That is what museums are for: to remind us of our failures as well as our successes. But we are finished with thinking that the antebellum South was some kind of paradise on Earth; and it’s past time to be done with using the pain and misery of that late Civil War as an excuse for not moving forward toward more self-responsible lives and a more civilized society. The truth is, race relations have come a very long way in America since April of 1865, and we have a long way to go yet before we can live together peaceably. But we are going to learn to do so. Too many of us–black, white, Mexican-American, Asian–love each other so much that we will live no other way.
We cannot forget our past, and a reminder of it will be useful to us now and again, but only as a sign of how much has changed; for certain ways of thinking do, over time, outlive their usefulness, whether in literature or in life. John Milton’s finest poem, for instance, used to be insulted by the Victorians in England, but critic Sir Walter Raleigh (who was born in the year our Civil War began) should have aimed his sharpest words about Paradise Lost across the sea at a more appropriate target. If there ever was, truly, a “monument to dead ideas” the Confederate flag is it.
[Postscript 10-26-15: The University of Mississippi has removed the state flag, which contains the Confederate flag in one corner, from its campus. The next step would logically be a referendum to redesign the state flag for future use.]