Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

American South has its own struggle with flags

Flying the Confederate flag has become a touchy subject in the US when competing rights collide, says Robert Strong

A man carries a Marine flag and a Confederate flag at a rally centered around reopening national memorials closed by the government shutdown, supported by military veterans, Tea Party activists and Republicans, on October 13, 2013 in Washington, DC
A man carries a Marine flag and a Confederate flag at a rally centered around reopening national memorials closed by the government shutdown, supported by military veterans, Tea Party activists and Republicans, on October 13, 2013 in Washington, DC

I live in a small southern American community in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. In recent years, my town has struggled with how to simultaneously commemorate the Civil War and civil rights.

The valley is beautiful. The Blue Ridge and Alleghany mountains provide miles of nearly perfect picture-postcard scenery running parallel to western Virginia.

My hometown is known for its scenic beauty, its institutions of higher education and its museums and monuments dedicated to famous generals. A library and museum holding the papers of George C Marshall is a prominent attraction, as are the homes and graves of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Lee and Jackson were the formidable team of Confederate generals whose bold manoeuvres and hard marches won a string of victories early in the war.

I live in one of the places where people go to remember the Civil War, the conflict that took more lives than any other in the history of the United States. It was the war that ended slavery – and scars the soul of the nation.

By coincidence, Lee-Jackson Day, the holiday set aside by the state of Virginia to honour the memories of Lee and Jackson falls on or near the day chosen by the nation to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King jnr which is on Monday.

This coincidence prompted discussions and debates in my community about whether it was appropriate to fly Confederate flags on city lampposts at a time when the nation is remembering its most important civil rights leader.

To some, it was wrong for a government to officially display such flags at any time of the year. In the end, and after considerable controversy, the city decided to fly no flags on holidays other than the official ones representing the nation and the state.

Lawsuits followed and the courts eventually ruled that an ordinance preventing the city from flying flags, other than the Stars and Stripes and the state flag, was both reasonable and fair.

Of course, a law or a court decision supporting that law does not prevent private citizens from displaying whatever flags they may wish. And the city ordinance that effectively prohibits official Confederate displays has had the ironic effect of encouraging individuals to make them. And make them they did.

Lee-Jackson Day has become a holiday that fills our streets with Confederate uniforms, flags, banners, bumper stickers, antique carriages and Civil War-era paraphernalia.

On this day each year, my hometown is a popular destination for the descendants of Confederate veterans, the hobbyists who re-enact Civil War events, political attention-seekers and journalists who love a good uproar.

The juxtaposition of Confederate flags and banners celebrating Martin Luther King can produce a disconcerting scene, but one that might not surprise people in this country by its occurrence or its consequences.

While visiting Ireland this year, I have read stories about parades and flags in the north and about the families living with the memories of loved ones lost during decades of violence. Communities here understandably struggle with how to provide appropriate remembrance without reigniting old issues.

The rights of free speech and assembly push against the obvious needs to reconcile groups and reduce tensions at a time when rivalries and hatreds still glow in the ashes of recently ended conflict.

Because I have seen something similar at home, I have real sympathy for how hard the issues of regulating symbolic political and cultural displays can be.

I appreciate that the challenging diplomatic duties taken on by Richard Haass and his associates will not be easily or quickly accomplished.

But the coincidence of holidays in Virginia can have at least one positive feature.

It can invite people to consider what Martin Luther King jnr might have said or done in response to the displays of Confederate memorabilia near the day that commemorates his life and his accomplishments.

First and foremost, I think King would defend the right of every individual to exercise the liberties of assembly and speech guaranteed by the Constitution.

Throughout his life, he quoted the Declaration of Independence and praised American constitutional rights while protesting the unjust laws that denied those rights to African-Americans.

But rights and liberties, once granted, are not without costs.

Some assemblies, some speeches, some flags can offend some.

If King spoke out about Lee-Jackson Day events, he would use the language he developed throughout his career, a language that combined dignity and indignation in a way that spoke to hardened hearts on both sides of deep racial divides.

As he defended the rights of Confederate flag fliers, he might also chide them for flaunting symbols of a flawed glory in a world still struggling with the legacies of long practised injustices.

It is, of course, presumptuous to pronounce with any certainty what King might say about contemporary situations.

During his life, his words were often hard to predict.

He frequently took up issues and delivered messages that surprised his listeners and his followers.

But one thing is nearly certain. King would, from time to time, ask us to dream of days in the future when the wounds of history would be less open and when new generations would be freer to live lives no longer dominated by those wounds.

Dreams do not come true by themselves. They can, however, instruct and inspire.

In Ireland and America we can honour King by crafting our own dreams of better communities and then committing ourselves to the sacrifice, the tolerance and the hard work it will take to move closer to those dreams.

Robert Strong is a professor of American politics and American foreign policy who has written books about Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter. He is currently completing a book about George H W Bush. This year he holds a Fulbright Scholarship and serves as the Mary Ball Washington Chair in the Department of History and Archives at University College Dublin

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