Flying the colors of Johnny Reb
Editor’s note: For the past few weeks the issue of displaying the flag most associated with the American Civil War has been an issue in the Monahans school district. While the issue has not surfaced in Pecos recently, I felt this column is still pertinent in Pecos, as it is a national issue.
I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. All of my kinfolk are from the South. All previous generations that I can find lived in the Southland.
I grew up listening to stories of my ancestors who fought the Yankees in the War of Northern Aggression. I was in school the first time I heard that war called the “Civil War.”
“Dixie” was a song my family sang in the car. Still does.
I earned my first B in school - I had been a straight-A student until 7th grade - because I refused to answer that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and nothing else, on a test.
In short, I am a son of the Southland, plain and simple - an unreconstructed Johnny Reb whose eyes water when he thinks of the bravery with which my forbearers faced insurmountable odds.
And, I’m not ashamed of it.
Most of life’s coins have two sides. The South is no different.
The South is usually dismissed as a backwater land inhabited by mentally deficient hillbillies with a penchant for hating people because they are black.
Those people do exist, but most of the ones I have met lived in the cities, not in the hills, and they were not the majority.
To judge the entire Southland and everything it is to be southern, by that one slice of the pie, would be like hating all of Texas because part of the population dislikes people who are brown. It exists, but it is not a fair picture of our state.
The coin of the South has many other faces - most of which are never portrayed by the national media. You have to live there, and maybe study a bit of history, to see many of these sides.
Currently, in Monahans, there is a bit of a controversy concerning the display of the “Confederate Flag” by high school students. The display of this flag has been banned because it is “disruptive.”
This is not a conversation given to a nice, quick sound bite, but I will try to be brief.
First, let me say that the flag being referred to is not the Confederate flag, though it has become a recognized symbol of that war. The flag is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia - one of many battle flags flown by units of the Confederate Forces.
There were three national flags - the last two of which incorporated the battle flag in the area that the stars occupy in the American flag.
The battle flag that has become so well known, was developed because the original national flag was too similar to the Union flag on battlefields where flags were a serious part of communications.
The battle flag is also referred to as the St. Andrew’s Cross or Southern Cross flag, or simply the Rebel flag, and by 1863 it had 13 stars symbolizing the 13 states that had left, or attempted to leave, the Union.
Now, lets talk about what this flag symbolizes.
The usual response outside the South is that it is a symbol of racists, both because the war was fought over slavery, and because some ignorant new age hate groups have adopted it as one of their symbols.
For the record, the Civil War was not fought over slavery. This is an idea that has been fostered for 150 years, but is still incorrect.
Let me point to a few indications that slavery was not the primary issue of this war:
1) Abe Lincoln publicly declared that his intent was to preserve the union (and its tax revenues) and that he would free the slaves, or not, whichever most served to preserve the union. Legal slavery was part of the Constitution, and the southern states knew that there was no danger of a legal end to slavery even in the long-term future. Even a brief reading of historical documents reveals this information. All the slave states had to do to preserve slavery was remain in the union and keep paying taxes.
2) Slavery was legal in the United States until after the war was over. Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation freed only those slaves that left the union - none in states he controlled.
3) Wars are fought over money-all of them-every single one in the history of mankind. In every case, one group wants the other’s money in one form or another.
The Civil War was no different. The South was tired of paying taxes it saw as unfair - especially as those tax dollars were primarily spent on Northern industrial improvements.
So, it withdrew and stopped paying taxes - or tried to.
And, the far majority of whites in the North despised blacks.
Most states had already adopted “black codes” that made life as a free black in those areas nearly unbearable.
No white person, northern or southern, can reach forward into the present and claim the moral high ground for their state or nation regarding slavery.
Both sides had their abolitionists, but the majorities of North and South had no interest in freeing the slaves - a sad statement perhaps, but true.
And, while it is easy to sit in judgment of these people today, it is also necessary to remember that slavery had been an accepted institution worldwide for thousands of years.
Such ideas do not evaporate overnight even in the minds of decent people.
The North owned fewer slaves simply because slave labor was less profitable in industry as compared to agriculture.
Historically, if any flag should symbolize slavery, it is our own Old Glory, which flew over state-sanctioned slavery for nearly 100 years.
If you read any of the many personal accounts of southern men who volunteered to fight in this war, you will find that they did not go forward to preserve slavery - something from which most profited little or not at all, and many of whom thought the institution vile.
What they fought and died for was principal - an idea that may be hard for many modern Americans to understand.
They fought for the right of self-determination.
They fought to preserve the idea of a Republican form of government with a very limited national government - laughingly referred to as states’ rights today.
They fought because they thought it their right to withdraw from the union just as they had voluntarily joined it.
They fought to be free of unfair taxation just as their grandfathers had when the states committed treason and rose up against the British.
So, just for the record, those of us with blood and emotional ties to the south, see many ideals wrapped in that flag, and the other flags and banners of the Confederate States.
But, even so, it has become a symbol of racism, so it should be abhorred, right?
Well, let’s put the shoe on another foot for a moment.
As a young reporter I covered a gathering of several hundred young black men in Missouri.
At that gathering, there was a virtual sea of t-shirts, banners and hats displaying images of black civil rights leaders. Pictures of Martin Luther King adorned shirts. Black hats with big white X’s were plentiful.
Now, the point of all of the speakers at this rally was that the only hope of black men was to kill all the white people - genocide, pure and simple.
I’m not sure you can be much more racist than that. It was a room filled with hate like I had never seen. These boys made television’s stereotypical redneck bigot look like a school marm.
So, just because these racist men adopted these symbols for their own, does it prevent others from recognizing another meaning? Is the picture of Martin King forever tainted because of this group?
I would argue that it is not.
As I would argue that neither are the symbols and banners of the Confederate States just because some neo-Nazi punks decide it looks cool.
People of Southern heritage have many things to be proud of, and the flags of their ancestors are symbols of this legacy - and no person has the right to take that symbol of freedom and courage and sacrifice away from them - I don’t care how many neo-Nazi punks and ignorant bigots try to make it a symbol of something else.
It can be banned in school as being a disruption, but somehow I do not think other symbols would be banned for simply being disruptive.
Would we ban the Texas flag if Mexican students started finding it offensive - something that would not be out of line when you consider their historical treatment in this state.
Would we ban MLK t-shirts if fights and such broke out over such display?
I doubt it.
So, call a spade a spade.
The crime being punished is not disruption. The crime being punished is daring to disagree with the state-sanctioned version of history - a version that it takes very little research to dispute.
Unfortunately, that is the price of losing the war - you do not get to write the official history books.
In closing, a little advice for those that want to display this symbol of my heritage.
I have had a few fights regarding this flag - some with those that think it evil, but most with those that were using it to promote a cause which I thought dishonored the real values of the men who fought and died under it.
If you are going to display it, do so for the right reasons. Do it to honor the good men and the high ideals it rightfully represents.
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York M. "Smokey" Briggs, Publisher
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Phone 432-445-5475, FAX 432-445-4321
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