VOICES: Waving the wrong flag
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
MARSHALL, N.C. – Benny Wint grew up as one of the few whites in a black neighborhood of a small South Carolina town. Today, if customers come into his roadside stand with a racist attitude, he wants them to leave.
Yet what Wint sells at his roadside stand are Confederate flags — all kinds, from the traditional Beauregard battle flag to a Southern Cross with purple bars on a yellow background. He says he has black and Mexican customers as well as white.
"The Confederate flag means freedom, the right to do what you want to do," says the 56-year-old, who has been selling the flags for nine years. "The right to do what you want to do is something you can't do in this country any more."
What the flag evokes for many African Americans is the image of 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, gun in one hand, Confederate flag in the other, in a photograph taken before he allegedly walked into an historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people. What they see in that flag are Klan rallies, Jim Crow and slavery.
"The Confederacy and what it stands for is treason," said Charles Steele Jr., who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.
More than likely, a Wint ancestor fought under that flag in a war that killed more than 600,000 soldiers — a toll equivalent to 6 million with today's population. One out of every four white Southern males between 16 and 45 years of age was either killed or disabled in the Civil War.
Southern apologists have long claimed that the war was about states' rights, union aggression, trade disputes. The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass would have none of it. "The very stomach of this rebellion is the negro in the form of a slave."
Yet most of those white Southerners on the front lines of the Civil War owned no slaves. In fact, the 1862 Confederate Conscription Act exempted well-to-do slave owners from serving in the military. Southern dissension against the war was much more prevalent than so-called Southern heritage groups would have you believe.
This "is a rich man's war and a poor man's fight," North Carolina's Civil War governor, Zebulon Vance, said. "The great popular heart is not now and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the politicians and not the people."
Yet the people fought that war to preserve slavery, the human property of the South's rich elite. And they kept waving the war's flag as Jim Crow loomed over the land, subjugating blacks once again and even many poor whites who also couldn't afford the poll taxes levied to restrict voting.
Working-class white Southerners waved that Confederate flag into the 21st century while the successors of the Southern antebellum elite mouthed "Southern virtue" and kept the region the nation's poorest.
The flag "is a sign of defiance, a sign of pride, a declaration of a geographical area that you're proud to be from," country singer Charlie Daniels has said.
Daniels is one of many Confederate flag-waving Southern musicians — David Allan Coe, Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd — whose music embodies a spirit of rebellion from the corporate norm in Nashville or New York.
I remember going to a concert by the ground-breaking rock group Buffalo Springfield in North Carolina in the mid-1960s. Fans yelled uproariously when the concert began with the unveiling of a giant Confederate flag across the back of the stage. However, those same fans then walked out in droves when Neil Young and other band members ventured into the long, mind-bending guitar riffs that foretold of the music that would later come from Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.
Like many blacks, working-class Southern whites feel alienated from much of U.S. society. Their wages stagnated while the earnings of the top 1 percent went through the roof. They're fed Fox News' race-tinged, anti-Obama, anti-Obamacare pablum 24 hours a day, yet the politicians Fox News pushes aren't putting food on the table or gas in the car.
Unlike struggling blacks, working-class Southern whites don't have a natural support base among Northern — or Southern — liberals or the Democratic Party, which today is nearly as dependent on corporate funding as the Republican Party and which has eschewed the working class in favor of identity politics.
They've got a right to feel rebellious. The problem is they're waving the wrong flag to show it.
(This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.