I grew up in the country, and I grew up with the Confederate flag.
On the other side of the Ohio River, I learned how to ride a horse when I was 3 and handle a gun by the age of 10. I requested a John Deere tractor on my third birthday cake and the monster truck Bigfoot another year. I spent my summers fishing in farm ponds, dodging livestock, and going to the county fair. Sometimes I wore a Confederate flag T-shirt.
I wasn’t an aspiring Klansmen – I just liked “Dukes of Hazard.” It was the ’80s. I liked Mr. T and Michael Jackson, too. I had a happy childhood, and the Confederate flag was part of it.
Aside from one machine gun-collecting neighbor who’d drop the maximum number of N-bombs in every conversation, I wasn’t aware of much racism as a child. Confederate flags were on pickups everywhere. But that was just “Dukes of Hazard” stuff, right?
Granted, my family didn’t have any friends who weren’t white like us. If we had, I wonder if they’d have liked the Dukes’ General Lee as much as we did. They probably wouldn’t have barbecued with our well-armed neighbor.
When I was 16 in 1995, I ran into my best friend from grade school, whom I’d lost touch with after he moved to another district. Suddenly, he was eager to tell me all about “The 14 words,” “Mein Kampf,” and the new friends he was trading weapons with.
When I was 18 in 1997, a woman in an all-white town down the road began dating a southwest Asian man from out of town, and some of her neighbors burnt a cross on her front lawn. The NAACP chapter from a nearby city organized a protest march in response. Protesters of the march wore swastika armbands and KKK T-shirts and stood together waving Nazi and Confederate flags. What they said to marchers made me angry, so I joined the march. They called me a “race traitor” and said I should be killed. A state trooper who escorted me out of town said, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I had never lived more than 15 miles away.
I got home and searched online for the KKK. The Confederate flag always was the first thing I saw. “Fly the battle flag with pride for we are at war again!” declared the website of “America’s Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” That wasn’t what the flag had meant to me, so I kept reading – not from KKK websites, but about U.S. history.
I learned that in the lead-up to the Civil War, 20-25% of the South’s people enslaved 32% of the South’s people, while the majority of people living in South Carolina and Mississippi were enslaved. And when that smaller group of rich Southerners who used government power to enslave a much larger group of Southerners went to war with the U.S., they did so to protect fortunes built on slavery, not to protect “states’ rights” – something clearly stated in Confederate states’ secession declarations. And to symbolize the war they fought to keep slaves, they created the Confederate flag. Or, rather, they created a bunch of different Confederate flags.
The consistent version of the Confederate flag – the one we know today – didn’t emerge until many decades after the Civil War, when Southern Blacks began to organize to achieve greater democracy. In response, the KKK reformed with the modern Confederate flag as a main symbol, and its allies in Southern state governments ran that symbol up every flagpole and built monuments to heroes of the white supremacist cause.
But white supremacists weren’t trying to leave the U.S. anymore – they were trying to go mainstream. That meant publicly pretending racism really wasn’t racism at all. This wasn’t a totally new trick. The KKK had always tried to portray itself as first and foremost a Christian organization, as it burned crosses and bombed churches. But now, a flag created to symbolize horrific white supremacist violence also became emblematic of an effort to cloak white supremacy in a fog of plausible deniability. “States rights,” “heritage, not hate” – those were all lies told to get whites who weren’t consciously racist to unwittingly support racism, as the Confederate flag was marketed to rural white folks all across America as a supposed symbol of rebellion and freedom. People of color always knew better, but now when they criticized the Confederate flag, white supremacists could turn around and say people of color were the real racists, who hated both freedom and white people, and therefore didn’t deserve equality.
If swastika belt buckles and Nazi T-shirts were the only “war memorabilia” on a vendor’s table, you wouldn’t say the vendor was operating a single-attraction history museum in the middle of a bunch of beer and truck logos, or promoting German “heritage, not hate.” But if you’re one of the folks putting on the Athens County Fair or Nelsonville Parade of the Hills, you probably grew up with the Confederate flag like I did. And now some people telling you to get rid of it are white-collar, college-educated, middle-class transplants to the city of Athens. You might feel like they’re looking down on you and trying to push you around.
But that’s not what this is about. The Confederate flag isn’t about standing up to self-righteous, suburban snobbery any more than it’s about Christianity, muscle cars, states rights, freedom, or country living. It’s about what it’s always been about – hurting people of color and trying to bring back history’s worst horrors.
So no one should have to force you to get rid of the Confederate flag. You should be able to do that all by yourself.
Editor’s note: Damon Krane of Athens is a member of the Southeast Ohio Democratic Socialists of America and an independent candidate for mayor of Athens.