I turned from a speaker at the Confederate flag rally this Saturday as he prattled on about some esoteric tax issue he’s utterly certain caused the Civil War to see this image: a man, holding a rebel battle flag incorporating a resplendent photograph of Barack Obama.
Shepard Fairey would die.
I didn’t get the name of the fellow selling flags out of the back of a new pickup. I regret that. This flag is fascinating. It deliberately, instantly creates cognitive dissonance, leaving the observer to impose meaning on the two juxtaposed images. Is it racist? The image chosen of Obama isn’t a caricature or overtly negative. It’s almost a propaganda shot of him looking powerful.
Is this a proclamation of Obama as the leader of the Confederate South? A statement of defiance against his authority? A con, meant to force sites like eBay or Amazon to ban an image of Obama if they’re going to ban sales of the rebel battle flag?
I gotta say, as art, it has merit.
It provokes. It also encompasses the central contradictions of the current flag debate, all of which were on display Saturday.
I went because I wanted to see the argument first hand. I’m also finishing a book on civic participation, and the idea of an innocuous Facebook post raising an army of supporters in under a week shows how power is shifting away from formal authority.
Also, I had just shot an op-ed for Fox 5 about the construction of the Stone Mountain memorial, and I wanted a sense of how people might react to the history lesson.
The Atlanta NAACP wants to sandblast Stone Mountain smooth, ridding Georgia of the Rushmore-like carvings of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. Atlanta City Councilman Michael Bond is receiving email death threats for suggesting instead that Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jimmy Carter might make suitable additions to the tableau.
Let’s ignore for the moment that Stone Mountain isn’t actually in the city of Atlanta. It’s in DeKalb County, abutting the city of Stone Mountain, and neither the DeKalb NAACP nor the leaders of the 75-percent black city of Stone Mountain have made editing Stone Mountain Park a policy priority. Yet.
The public’s reaction – black and white – has largely dismissed the idea of erasing the sculpture. It would be insanely expensive. It’s also art. It’s bad art, in my opinion. It’s derivative treacly propaganda as art, a black velvet Elvis in granite. It’s plainly offensive art, to whatever degree that matters. But it’s art. It’s different than a flag. It absolutely cannot be duplicated.
And civilized cultures do not destroy art. We are not the Taliban. So the flaggers win a round. Go big or go home was never a truer statement.
But the heritage argument for Stone Mountain is bunk without recognizing the full history of that heritage.
Sam Venable, Grand Wizard of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan, owned Stone Mountain when the Confederate memorial was commissioned. Venable helped reconstitute the Klan not long after the lynching of Leo Frank, burning a big cross once a year on the mountaintop to rally the mob in white hoods.
The modern Klan emerged with screenings of “Birth of a Nation,” the virulently racist tale of the Klan defending the noble south from carpetbaggers and black men. About a year after the rebirth of the modern Klan, the United Daughters of the Confederacy got permission to carve this art into the mountainside, on Venable’s condition that the Klan have a permanent easement to meet there, presumably to burn crosses and discuss who next required lynching.
Helen Plane from the United Daughters of the Confederacy wrote a letter to the sculptor, telling him she would like to see a parade of Klansman marching as an army behind the generals, immortalized “in their nightly uniform” on the mountainside. The original plans called for a Klan altar at the base of the mountain below the monument. Venable later inducted the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, into the Klan.
This art was Klan décor.
The Klan used its influence with government to get special 50-cent coins minted of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, to help fund its completion. The distributors of “Birth of a Nation” subsidized the construction of the Stone Mountain memorial with ticket receipts.
Klan décor, paid for with government funding.
In 1958, after the fall of the Klan as a political and social force but at the height of segregationist furor in Georgia, the state government purchased Stone Mountain to create a permanent memorial. Government legally condemned the Klan’s easement, but enshrined all of its white-supremacist symbolism into an untouchable state-sponsored memorial.
In this place, a month shy of the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Klan’s second wave at Stone Mountain, someone decided to hold a Confederate flag rally, waving banners on the spot where Klansmen burned crosses. For a movement interested in improving its image, that’s just bad form.
Mostly, I wanted to see if people really understood how steep a climb it would be to repurpose the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag into a racially-neutral symbol of southern culture.
One Klansman did show up at the event Saturday — at least, one willing to walk around with a Klan baseball cap. He did not fare well.
As soon as it became clear that there was a Klan presence, the crowd rushed him, screaming at him to leave. People shouted aloud that the media would focus solely on the fact that the Klan came, undermining the “heritage, not hate” message. And the crowd’s anger was visceral and physical.
“I’m an anti racist-piece-of-s–t!” one fellow shouted, shirt off, ready to go. “If I had a two-by-four, I would smash your head in … if there weren’t so many witnesses,” he added, before a militia guy armed for an ISIS invasion asked him to turn his back to the Klansman.
Then someone pointed out to me that the fellow was wearing FUBU sneakers.
This video has now been seen 100,000 times on Facebook and I can’t tell you how incredibly angry I am that I’m not making any money from it.
It says something that a crowd of Confederate flag supporters took a moment to shun the Klan. The depth of the disgust was, to my view, quite sincere. And I think I understand it.
We declare things evil for three reasons. It shows us the line between moral and immoral behavior. It defines the worst, to give us a starting point for moral gradients. And it creates social cohesion, binding folks together in a group defined as “not evil.” Evil, perversely, creates identity.
It has been a long, long time since working class and poor white folks in the south have had full control over their own public image and their own identities. First the Civil War in its blinding stupidity cost them that control, while the industrialization and relative economic prosperity of the rest of the country cemented that loss.
People from big cities like urban Atlanta or from up north still hear an Appalachian accent and mentally start counting teeth and subtracting IQ points, and it doesn’t matter if you drive a truck or teach law at Emory. The bigotry of the poor white south is a cultural stereotype to be overcome, right along with generational poverty, intelligence, religion and politics. It is a soft, socially-acceptable form of classism, if not anti-white racism.
None of this is meant to excuse the legacy of white supremacy in the south, nor how the flag has been used by the Klan and by segregationists to promote their views, nor how as a symbol it almost completely excludes the heritage of black southerners. I am not making a revisionist argument that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery. I am not suggesting that racism in the south is anything other than a pervasive problem.
But while activists attack the battle flag as a sign of racial hate, the people waving it see that as an attack on themselves — one more way to define poor white southerners as the bad guys. The flag isn’t ridiculed because it’s a sign of support for segregation, to them. It’s ridiculed because southerners like it.
I think there’s no getting past the screaming match before understanding this identity problem. What a complicated mess.
If the arguments by the pro-flag south seem incoherent or disingenuous at times, it may be rooted in this identity crisis. I heard, repeatedly, how the war wasn’t about slavery, and how few Confederate soldiers owned slaves, and how Lincoln never really freed slaves and was a great big hypocrite, and how some black people fought for the confederacy so it must have been OK. Never mind the fallacies, just consider the core statement: “We’re not the bad guys.”
It might be easy enough for poor and working-class white southerners to disavow racism and define the flag on their own positive terms. That’s plainly the goal of exercises like Saturday’s rally, halting though the progress might be.
Asserting a new identity for the flag would require steps to be taken that haven’t happened: a general and honest acknowledgment of the sins of the past done in the flag’s name, meaningful dialogue with people of color and tying the flag tightly to other racially-neutral southern symbols.
Such as they are.
One of the great problems facing the south is a lack of symbols equal to the battle flag that tie southern culture together without being racially exclusive. There’s no equivalent to the fleur-de-lis in New Orleans or the palmetto flag in South Carolina that speaks for the whole South — black and white, Latino and Asian, Native and not.
But even if folks did all that, reconciled the past to the present, it would require society at large to allow white southerners to define themselves. And to hell with them, right?
If I weren’t so used to society unfairly defining black men as lazy, immoral criminals, I might laugh at the irony.
So, here we are. The flag is plainly a symbol of white supremacy, terrorism and racism. It is also a symbol of southern heritage that need not necessarily be borne in hate. A casual observer won’t always be able to tell the difference because racists lie, and society at large isn’t ready to give poor white southerners the benefit of the doubt because screw those guys.
It’s why the Obama battle flag is so interesting to me. Redefining the battle flag will take Adbusters-level culture jamming. That flag is a start.