- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2000

The national leadership of the NAACP recently decided at its convention in Baltimore to continue its tourism boycott of South Carolina because of the state's refusal to disavow its association with the Confederate battle flag which, to the NAACP, is a blatant manifestation of the state's unwillingness to amputate itself from its secessionist ancestry.

The argument of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is that the flag is a hurtful symbol of the bygone era of slavery, which was abolished 135 years ago with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution shortly after the end of the Civil War in the spring of 1865. The amendment reads:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Implied in the NAACP's contention is that the mere presence of the Confederate flag serves to lower black self-esteem and thereby incapacitates the potential for many blacks to succeed.

Lest we forget, four of our first five presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe) were slave-owning Virginians and prior to secession there was no Confederate States of America, much less a Confederate flag. And of course slavery and the long reign of post-Civil War racial discrimination that continued until the mid-20th century was condoned under the much beloved red, white and blue Stars and Stripes that has always been our national flag since the early days of the Revolution, with the only changes having been made to it being the addition of more stars to represent the additional states that have entered the Union. Thirty-seven new states since 1789.

Thus I ask, why has the American flag been exempt from assault by the NAACP while the Confederate flag is under such virulent attack? As a historian this is particularly troubling when one considers that more than 5,000 blacks (mostly free) served in the Continental Army during the war against England. A memorial to them, which was approved by Congress some years ago, will be dedicated on the National Mall in the near future.

Also, it is an established and irrefutable fact (which until recently most Civil War scholars have long denied and even now despite the evidence many are reluctant to accept) that blacks (mostly free) served in some Confederate units as soldiers, fighting against the invading armies of the North.

In other words, some of the grandsons of soldiers who fought with Washington likely did indeed fight with Lee. But the areas where blacks contributed most mightily to the sustenance of the Confederate cause were in the civilian sectors of farming, manufacturing and providing medical care in the hospitals. Without the help of blacks, I do not believe the South could have survived for four months of brutal war, as a nation in rebellion, much less four years.

At the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, there is an excellent exhibit on "African-Americans in Confederate Service" that should be seen by all. Most Americans are familiar with the courageous tales and the exploits of the Underground Railroad and those runaway slaves who risked their lives to secure freedom. Freedom is so fundamental to the human spirit that such behavior is entirely understandable.

The more challenging question to pose, however, is why did those blacks who could have run away (especially in Virginia where there were more than 500,000 which lost its western territory when it became the free state of West Virginia in 1863) chose not to do so and instead stayed. Could it have been out of a sense of loyalty and "patriotism"? I think so, which is virtually impossible for so many of us to comprehend today.

And yet during the turbulent 1960s a mere generation ago when our nation was being torn asunder, African-American soldiers went to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam (as their ancestors had done in all of American's previous wars) to protect American interests during the same time that many members of their race were being beaten and killed and their homes, churches and businesses destroyed for their simply trying to acquire and exercise their full rights as citizens in the country of their birth.

I do not recall the Rev. Martin Luther King during the heat of the civil rights struggle (or for that matter Malcolm X, Medgar Evers or even the militant Black Panther Party) ever publicly voiced their anguish (if they felt such) over the prominent display of the Confederate flag.

More importantly, if the NAACP were logically consistent in its opposition to the flag as solely a symbol of slavery, their boycott should be conducted in the nation's capital, whose major industry is tourism. After all, that is where slavery and later segregation were indeed codified by the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court and where memorials to Washington and Jefferson abound.

The NAACP was founded nearly a century ago and has been the tireless and unrelenting advocate for so much of the racial reform that the country now enjoys and proudly displays to the world. The organization, as its name indicates, is committed to achieving the "advancement" of its constituency.

Frankly, I personally do not see how the removal of the Confederate flag from the flagpoles of South Carolina, or throughout the South, will in any way attain that end. As an African-American myself, I would prefer to see the NAACP bravely address and more richly invest its considerable resources into waging war against the plentiful presence of enemies within the black community, namely: black-on-black murders, fatherless homes, teen-age pregnancy, school dropouts, alcohol and drug abuse and so on.

Fighting the flag simply serves as a needless distraction that drains away the much needed energy to combat these self-destructive and far more urgent concerns.

Edward C. Smith is director of American studies at the American University.

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