Conflict continues to fly over Statehouse

Monday, Jul. 06, 2009
By Dan Golden and Issac J. Bailey – The Sun News

The Confederate battle flag flying at the soldiers monument on the Statehouse grounds stirs passions nearly a decade after its move there from atop the Statehouse dome, and it remains the focus of a nine-year NAACP economic boycott.

Supporters of the compromise say history cannot be rewritten and the flag deserves to fly as long as the memorial to Confederate soldiers remains. Critics concede the importance of honoring history but say the flag at the Statehouse represents the denigration of a people and does not deserve to be honored.

And so the fight continues, as complex and bitter as ever, fitting for a banner forged in a war just as complicated. But the truth of that war defies assumptions and presents a picture that could bring new understanding to all sides.

The hard-fought compromise to move the flag was seen at the time as the best middle ground – by black lawmakers, white lawmakers and by many supporters and critics of the flag.

State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, a black supporter of the compromise, told The Sun News the day the flag was moved: "I think it’s the start of racial tolerance in South Carolina."

Nine years later, Ford was still working on that goal. He introduced a bill in February that would have forced S.C. municipalities to recognize Confederate Memorial Day as a paid holiday. Ford pointed to deep-seated racism in the state and said learning more about the history behind it would help end it.

"If you go out there in real South Carolina, it’s hatred," he told The Associated Press, "and I think we can bring our people together."

All major historians agree that the war was primarily fought over slavery – the South wanted it extended into the new territories – but that’s only part of the story, said Vernon Burton, the Burroughs Professor of Southern History and Culture at Coastal Carolina University and author of the acclaimed "The Age of Lincoln."

The war was full of episodes that defy easy stereotypes.

Some Confederate units counted black soldiers among their number.

Today, the Litchfield Sons of Confederate Veterans camp devotes time to finding the graves of Civil War veterans and has been searching for the gravesite of Elisha Small, a black Confederate soldier from Murrells Inlet.

"We’ve pinpointed it down to the plantation that the captain of the artillery unit owned that Mr. Small served under," said Ken Thrasher, the camp commander.

Deviations from conventional accounts don’t stop there.

Lincoln explicitly made the war about ending slavery – something he did not do at the outset – to grab the moral high ground and keep other countries from entering the war on the South’s side, Burton said.

"It inspired the rest of the world and the U.S. to our better angels," he said.

More than 40 percent of Southerners fought against the Confederacy, he said. That carried over after the war.

Some former Confederate soldiers and white Southerners supported and helped in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its precursor groups and pushed for black voting rights.

They included former Confederate commanders James Longstreet and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard; and John Wise, whose father, Virginia Gov. Henry Wise, hanged John Brown for his attempt to lead a slave rebellion.

"Many Southerners who fought for the South became Republicans and fought hard for interracial black rights and even became civil rights lawyers," Burton said. "It is a good story that needs to be told, and these brave folks who went against the grain are true heroes in my book and deserve the monuments and statues that we have reserved for those who led in the Civil War and fighting against integration."

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