When I was fourteen or fifteen, which would put it about 1969-70, my family drove South, I think we still lived in New York at the time, to visit family friends in Florida. Route 95 wasn't complete yet or at least wasn't the route we took, so we were on back roads with some commercial activity. Somewhere in the middle of the state where, coincidentally, I am now I saw a billboard. It had a picture of a smiling man in a tall white pointed hood and a white robe. The billboard said:
You are in the heart of Klan country
Welcome to North Carolina
Not the sort of billboard you forget.
I was a Northern White Jewish kid. The Klan isn't known for liking Jews, or Northerners for that matter, but it's a whole lot better known for not liking Blacks. The billboard was chilling. It said to me: "You may think you're safe because you're in America but you can't really count on that. People run this neighborhood who don't like you and others you care about because of what you are rather than what you actually do."
A few years later I was watching a miniseries on television. I think it was Winds of War, based on the Herman Wouk book. There was a scene that took place in about 1936 where a German ocean liner docked in New York. Being as it was portraying 1936, the ship flew a Nazi flag. Here I was, about thirty years after the war, and the sight of that flag in New York made my blood run cold, knowing that if someone like me walked onto that boat and it pulled out of the harbor, that was it; they could do whatever they felt like to me with no consequences. They weren't mass murdering Jews yet but they had started a whole lot of restrictions; Jews were by then certainly a targeted population. That the Nazis were once welcome in the United States was such an odd and awful realization, particularly in the city my family is from.
To Black people, the Confederate flag might as well be a Klan billboard. The message is the same. It isn't to me, but I have the luxury in this case of being White. To them, the billboard says "Welcome to the South, where we view your subjugation as sacred."
I'm not saying something here about the South in general. I'm saying something about what the flag says, particularly when it's used in an official capacity, like over a statehouse.
This is really pretty simple: You don't terrorize a large portion of your population for the sake of glorifying a rebellion a century and a half ago. Not on a government building. The last thing we want to say is that the people who work in this government building do not dispense equal justice. What makes it worse is what the rebellion was about. If you read what Southern leaders said during the era leading up to the attack on Ft. Sumter, they did not talk about states' rights; they talked explicitly about preserving slavery.
We threw a depiction of the Ten Commandments out of a statehouse because we didn't want those who were not Jewish or Christian to feel like that, and the Ten Commandments is certainly not a document promoting oppression. The flag stands for oppression. It's why the war was fought and it's absolutely why the flag was re-flown in 1962.
Sure, the flag stands for other things, too. The flag is the primary symbol of a region with a very strong identity, strong enough to be stereotyped a whole lot, and I certainly understand wanting to identify with one's group. Unfortunately, that's not what the flag over the statehouse is about, particularly given that it was put back up in 1962 in defiance of the civil rights movement. It is simultaneously a call to rebel against one's country, treason, and a tool of intimidation.
We'd never expect anyone to have to look at Klan billboards all the time, particularly located on the grounds of government buildings.
And yet, up to now, we've expected the equivalent of that.
We shouldn't. And I'm thrilled that a whole lot of people have suddenly realized that.