- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

Monday on PBS' "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," Elizabeth Farnsworth moderated a debate on the question, "What does the Confederate flag symbolize?" The following are excerpts of that debate.

Shelby Foote, Civil War historian: The flag is a symbol my great-grandfather fought under and in defense of. I am for flying it anywhere anybody wants to fly it. I do know perfectly well what pain it causes my black friends, but I think that pain is not necessary if they would read the Confederate Constitution and knew what the Confederacy really stood for. This country has two grievous sins on its hands. One of them is slavery whether we'll ever be cured of it, I don't know. The other one is emancipation they told 4 million people, "You're free, hit the road," and they drifted back into a form of peonage that in some ways is worse than slavery. These things have got to be understood before they're condemned. They're condemned on the face of it because they take that flag to represent what those yahoos represent … in their protest against civil rights things. But the people who knew what that flag really stood for should have stopped those yahoos from using it as a symbol of what they stood for. But we didn't and now you had this problem of the Confederate flag being identified as a sort of roughneck thing, which it is not… .
Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland: Well, I think the flag is a symbol of the most terroristic and oppressive period in the history of black people in America. It brings back memories of the pain and the degradation of our people… . The constitution of the South is really beside the point. What's important about that is what was done, the culture, the civilization that meted out the most brutal punishment of the people you could imagine, and so that is what that flag means to most black Americans, I would assume… .
Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University: I can understand when Shelby Foote refers to his great-grandfather with warmth and affection, and I've a great-grandfather too. He's buried someplace in northern Mississippi. And he was a slave all his life. Our history is often represented to us as a triumphal march from Jamestown to Oahu, I guess, and it's all been glorious and wonderful, but our history is full of pain and loss, too. And this kind of debate brings out everybody's pain … and we've got to find some kind of middle ground to understand each other because we can't continue to use our common history or bits of it to continue to injure each other. That is not the way to march toward a common destiny… .
Mr. Foote: I don't object to any individual hiding from history, but I do object to their hiding history from me. And that's what seems to me to be going on here. There are a lot of terrible things that happened in American history, but we don't wipe 'em out of the history books; we don't destroy their symbols; we don't forget they ever happened; we don't resent anybody bringing it up. The Confederate flag has been placed in that position that's unique with an American symbol. I've never known one to be so despised… .
I can't really argue with the people's decision [in South Carolina] to remove it [from the Statehouse]; if a constitutional body decides to remove the flag from a certain place, I can't argue with that decision… . But to me the flag is a noble symbol, and I'm sorry to see it scorned. The Confederacy stood for a great many things other than slavery… . [Slavery] was greatly contributory to starting the war and it was contributory to the North winning the war because of Lincoln's definition [that it] was a war about slavery. It was not that in the first place or the last place. It was other things, many other things… .
Mr. Wilkins: Well, the pain of our history resonates powerfully in human life today not only do blacks still feel the pain of slavery, but I think that whites miseducated to believe that they were entitled to be privileged forever feel a loss from black people beginning to take their rightful place as full citizens of this society… . I agree with him we can't hide from our history but we can't pretty it up either… .
Mr. Foote: I don't think that it's prettying it up to have a symbol present… .
Bill Dunlap, Washington artist and Mississippi native: I've been watching this fascinating debate. I see the people I love and admire sort of, you know, worry about how the flag is a symbol; it shows the power of the symbol. It also tells us that, I think, the heavy lifting of the civil rights movement is done. I mean, Jim Crow is moldering in his grave, and it's a very good thing, but there are other issues to deal with… .
Mr. Walters: I think that what we see here the attack on the flag … really is sort of the last gasp of the legitimacy of Southern nationalism. A flag is a symbol of the state and this particular flag was a symbol of Southern nationalism. And I think that what the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] is saying is let us take the national out of this let us privatize this let us put this in the realm of private culture… . I don't think I am ever going to convince Shelby Foote that the Civil War was not about slavery. As far as I am concerned, it was very much about slavery, and I think that really marks our different perspectives on a very historical event. So I think what we're going to have to do is to work out a common future, rather than argue about the past… .
Mr. Foote: I certainly did not say the war was not about slavery. I said it was about a great many other things, too. We have a hard time talking across this gap. I wish that somehow you could take the Jews as a model. They're not ashamed of having been slaves in Egypt; they're not ashamed even of the Holocaust; they do not mind calling people's attention to it. But my black friends seem to wish this thing … had never happened and want to pretend it didn't happen. I don't understand that kind of erasing history… .
Mr. Walters: I don't think it's a question of pretending that it didn't happen. It did happen… . But I think that you cannot compare sort of the Jewish history of slavery to African-American history of slavery because our history of slavery was slavery inside a state, and the people who enslaved us are still here, and that is a profound difference in what the Jews have suffered historically. I might also say it's different than what they have suffered in modern history. The Holocaust was something that happened in Europe. Slavery was something that was done to us right here. And that really is part of the problem… .
Mr. Wilkins: Well, I surely disagree that black people are ashamed of slavery. I think that most of us as a result of what we went through in the '60s find a great deal of strength in our slave ancestors that we have to live up to. We don't want to be eradicated. We don't want to forget those ancestors that we had, and we don't want to forget what slavery taught us about the nature of human beings either and how imperative it is to struggle for human decency every day of our life.

c Reprinted with permission by "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer"



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