Confederate flag: Rebel without a cause

By Elizabeth Leland
Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012

If you have ever driven past the tattered flag fluttering outside Eugene Barrett’s home in western Mecklenburg County, you probably had one of two strong reactions:

Loved it or hated it.

As much as official Charlotte prides itself on being a New South city that’s so progressive it snagged the Democratic National Convention, remnants of the Old South linger in our region – and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.

After eight months of debate in 2005, Charlotte removed the one that flew over the graves of Confederate veterans in Elmwood Cemetery near uptown. But you don’t have to drive far from center city to see the distinctive blue cross with 13 white stars on a bright red background.

“Heritage,” Barrett said when I asked why he flies the Confederate battle flag.

“Heritage,” said Kevin Wooten in nearby Gaston County, who had a Confederate flag in his yard mounted in the back of a broken-down pickup truck. Up front, an American flag flew from out of the hood where the radio antenna used to go.

“It’s nothing about no hate against anyone,” said Wooten, 55, a mechanic by trade who enjoys wrestling and drag racing. “I have black friends I care about more than some of my white friends. But … .”

There’s often a “but” when you talk about the flag.

“I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too,” Wooten said. “My great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army down this way. I know a lot of people don’t like the flag, but I don’t see that as a problem.”

A matter of civility

David Goldfield, a historian at UNC Charlotte, believes it’s fine to embrace your ancestors. But Goldfield, who wrote “Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History,” suggests it’s time people brought the Confederate flag indoors.

“It offends a lot of people,” he said. “I tell them, ‘If I were in your position, I might have the Confederate battle flag in my house, but not necessarily fly it out in front of my house if it offended my neighbor.’ It’s just a matter of civility. It’s not a question of who’s right or who’s wrong.”

The fact that after 12 years the NAACP is still boycotting South Carolina because it flies the Confederate flag on the State House grounds is as clear an indication as any that the flag remains divisive. Hate groups use it as a symbol. Even back when the flag was first adopted, Goldfield said, it was closely allied to white supremacy.

“There’s no debate among historians today that slavery caused the Civil War,” Goldfield said, “and that the banner Confederate troops carried into battle was supporting a nation that predicated itself on the protection and extension of slavery.”

Historians may say so, but flag flyers disagree.

“If you know anything about the Civil War, you know it had nothing to do with slavery,” Barrett said. Barrett doesn’t know whether any of his ancestors fought in the Civil War. But being from the South – he was born in Columbia – is reason enough, he said, to fly the flag.

Barrett is a carpenter and avid motorcyclist who wears both his hair and his beard long and sports a sticker of a Confederate flag on his bike helmet. Several Confederate flags hang inside his garage, as well as the tattered one that flies from the pole outside.

“People think of the Confederate flag in two ways: Slavery and skinheads,” Barrett said. “That’s not what the flag means to me. That’s my heritage. Some people think all the rebel people – Southern people – are against the blacks. That’s not true.”

A proud heritage?

Asked what he would tell Democrats coming to town about why he flies the Confederate flag 150 years after the war, Barrett replied, “I’m a Southern history nut.”

Barrett then offered the argument that you hear a lot from flag defenders: that flying the flag has nothing to do with race, that black people know who he really is and know the flag is his heritage, that the flag isn’t divisive unless someone comes around and tries to stir something up.

He’s a knowledgeable guy and I enjoyed talking with him. A breeze blew up and his flag unfurled against a beautiful Carolina blue sky, and I felt the way I always feel when I see the Confederate flag flying.

I’m Southern, born and bred. Both sides of my family settled in South Carolina 300-plus years ago. My ancestors fought beneath the Confederate battle flag during the Civil War – or, as my grandmother called it, the “Late Great Unpleasantness.” I could probably whistle “Dixie” before I learned to read or write.

The flag is part of my heritage, too. But it’s not something I’m proud of. Our ancestors fought to keep slavery intact, and the flag is a symbol of that misguided cause. It’s past time we put it away.

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