Last Thursday, our nation’s highest court made the right decision when it ruled against the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ request to put the Confederate flag on license plates here in Texas (news story with audio; text of the court’s opinion). While I’m an ardent supporter of free speech rights, this case is problematic. As someone who has taught history and worked in a public records archive, I question this group’s motivations. Yes, the flag has historical value, but it is also inflammatory.
Any remaining Confederate flags from the nineteenth century are worthy of preservation in an accredited museum alongside the other artifacts on exhibit for the public to view. All of the items maintained in these facilities help us better understand the complex social, economic, and political developments that occurred in our nation’s past. Each of them is like a small piece in a very large puzzle. As we arrange the pieces, we create a more complete picture.
According to the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ website, they claim to be a “non-political organization dedicated to insuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.” Why would this group engage in a protracted legal battle if they didn’t have a political agenda? Contrary to popular belief, the judiciary is a political institution composed of actors who each have their own ideology. Also, any organization whose members purport to know the “true history” of a “period” are being intellectually dishonest. Our understanding of the past is predicated upon individual analyses of the various primary source materials available. As a result, no one may offer a definitive account of any event that has transpired. It appears this group is misguided because their “true history” is a matter of perspective.
Furthermore, most flags are political symbols used to distinguish between different groups of people in different places at a specific moment in time. Often they are tied to identity and invoke a sense of pride. Without question, the Confederate flag is a political symbol that represents an injudicious attempt to partition this country and build a separate nation. So, I’m curious, which part of history do those who openly display it appreciate more: Is it the morally deplorable slave labor that blatantly contradicted our bedrock constitutional principles or the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who needlessly died in a military conflict?
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A different version of this piece appeared in the Houston Chronicle on June 24, 2015.