It has been some time since so much hate has been on such bold display in the town square. White nationalists wave a collection of flags – stitched in cloth, all catching the same breeze – to pronounce their purpose. Their increased visibility in recent months may appear to be an aberration. In actuality, these recent events are part of an enduring aspect of our nation’s history.
Following the Civil War and the ratification of three amendments to the US Constitution – abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection of the law, and securing voting rights – the Ku Klux Klan emerged to ensure that these developments would not interfere with the well-established Southern notion of racial harmony. Within a generation, the allegedly defeated Confederacy had reasserted itself. Supplemented with a perversion of the Thirteenth Amendment allowing slavery as “punishment for crime,” the lynching of thousands, and, most profoundly, the threat of lynching to millions, segregation kept blacks in their place. When the federal government weighed in on these conditions in the South, the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896 offered a resounding affirmation of Jim Crow.
When black soldiers returned from overseas following World War I they were emboldened by their participation, the principled expressions of a struggle meant to “make the world safe for democracy,” and a renewed vision of hope for the future. Whites donned their sheets once again. There were roughly five thousand Klansmen in 1915. By 1924, there were four million.
While there are many stories of blacks asserting themselves in this era, whatever gains made were washed away by the Great Depression. Indeed, in order to garnish the support of white Southern Democrats, New Deal programs of the 1930s such as Social Security and federal loan support [FDIC?] were explicitly crafted to exclude agricultural and domestic service workers – employment extremely common among blacks in the South.
In a war fought to end fascism abroad, World War II revitalized the struggle for basic civil rights at home. Widespread and essential black participation in the war effort – at home and abroad – shaped an entire generation’s outlook and launched the modern civil rights movement. The court’s 1954 Brown decision appeared to correct a long-standing injustice and inspired moments captured in places like Montgomery and Little Rock. The massive white backlash to these events – including social and political manipulations meant to dodge the legal mandate to end segregation – crushed that hope.
The ostensibly nonviolent civil rights movement gave way to the rise of black militancy and the urban unrest of the mid-1960s. These expressions of Black Power were met with perhaps the most devastating white backlash of all. Following the 1968 election of “law-and-order” candidate Richard Nixon, the next several decades were witness to a war on drugs that resulted in the militarization of police and the mass incarceration of millions of blacks.*
The most recent cause for black hope was the election of Barack Obama. The inevitable backlash gave us “birthers” who denied Obama’s legitimacy as president, white nationalists roaming the halls of the White House, and battle flags and swastikas in our streets.
Those who fly the colors of the Confederacy or protest the removal of a General Lee statue argue that these symbols represent something noble disassociated from race. Those bothered by this flag claim that those who display it are simply racist segregationists compelled to pretend – when in public, at least – that they are neither.
There is little debate regarding the meaning of the swastika. Whether waving it with pride or disgusted by it, all who see it recollect the same moments in history and generally agree on the facts that shape that history. There is comfort to be had in knowing that very few people are indifferent to the swastika.
I am reminded of a classroom moment. After the decision was made to reintroduce the long lost practice of pledging allegiance to the American flag, it became necessary to examine just what it was we were doing. With the exception of a few Boy Scouts, most of my students were unfamiliar with this overt display of patriotism. And, since I’m pretty sure allegiance is not mandatory, part of the instruction included the possibility that some might not be inclined to participate.
The pledge, by the way, is a single sentence with subject and predicate presenting themselves very early in the recitation. And, since this community exercise requires a cue of some sort, by the time most students become aware that the chanting has begun, they open up with “… allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America…” and so forth. The result being – absent both subject and predicate – they have actually said nothing at all of significance.
Pledging allegiance to an ideal is serious business and, in my view, forcing someone to participate runs counter to the pledge itself. My job, I told them, is to teach them how to think, not what to think. I added, though, that we live in a pretty impressive country and that they might take this into consideration when deciding to opt in or opt out.
Whenever the lesson turned to some of the darker moments in our nation’s past – like some of those mentioned above – the flag’s message of “liberty and justice for all” loomed right overhead, guiding us in our quest to understand what it means to be an American. These are the situations that become discomfiting for those who think it’s unpatriotic to subject our nation’s past to scrutiny. As to the students, I remind them that the American flag represents a set of ideals that has the potential to bind the country together.
Although imperfect, we continue to pursue what the flag stands for, that it stands for something good and decent and someday we might just start getting close to living up to it.
*For more on this idea, see Jimmy P. Morgan’s upcoming Ghetto Nation: Black Power and the Detroit Rebellion of 1967.