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Jewish World Review April 24, 2000 /19 Nissan, 5760

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports


Rebel flag not a racist symbol -- LAST WEEK, Sen. John McCain had a conveniently timed attack of conscience (well after the Southern primaries) and added his voice to the chorus calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the dome of South Carolina's capitol in Columbia.

The flag has sparked demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, a 120-mile march, and an NAACP economic boycott of the state. The banner is berated as a symbol of slavery and segregation, and compared to the swastika.

Vice President Al Gore is scornful of his rival George Bush for not condemning the flag. Prior to the New York primary, Gore participated in a Harlem debate sponsored by that paragon of brotherhood, Al Sharpton. The NAACP has rejected a compromise, passed by the South Carolina senate, which would remove the flag from the dome and locate it near a Confederate memorial on the capitol grounds.

I must confess that Abraham Lincoln is one of my heroes. After genocide, slavery is the worst evil to befall a people. Preserving the Union was a cause worthy of any sacrifice. Still, I believe the men who fought for Dixie were honorable and, in the case of Robert E. Lee, even noble.

Southerners have every right to be proud of their heritage. Most who rallied to the Lost Cause believed they were resisting a Northern invasion of their homeland rather than fighting for the "right" to own slaves (only 10 percent of Southern whites did).

If the South was fighting for slavery, why did five slave states side with the North? And why did Lee free his slaves a decade before the Civil War, while Ulysses Grant remained a "marse" until his slaves were liberated by the 13th Amendment?

If things associated with the Confederacy are symbols of defiance to civil rights, then why are federal military installations -- Ft. Bragg and Ft. Hood -- named for Confederate generals?

A friend in Columbia offers an explanation for the flag's support: "I believe the real reason why so many people resist moving the flag is because they're simply tired of being kicked around by the media and minority activists out for East Coast liberal bucks. The flag is the last banner of political incorrectness."

Surely not the last. For almost 30 years, Old Glory flew on the masts of slave ships. In 1857, it waved over the United States Supreme Court, when the Court ruled that a slave was property and not a person.

It's only a matter of time before the perpetual grudge-bearers graduate from bashing the Confederate flag to savaging the Stars and Stripes. In the meantime, they ignore a legitimate target right under their noses.

Just yards from where the rebel flag flies stands a larger-than-life statue of Benjamin Ryan Tillman. An inscription on the base reads: "This monument erected by the legislature, the Democratic Party and Private Citizens of South Carolina. Dedicated, May 1, 1940."

A governor and U.S. senator, Pitchfork Ben Tillman was an early 20th-century populist and a race-baiter who made David Duke look like the Easter Bunny.

On March 23, 1900, Tillman addressed the Senate in defense of mob violence. "We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men and never will," Tillman boasted. "We have never believed him to be the equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him."

So, why no outcry over the Tillman statue, which should be consigned to the scrap-metal heap of history? Perhaps the NAACP is unaware of Tillman's refined sentiments on race relations, or maybe it's willing to make allowances for a politician whose rancor extended to corporations, banks and the rich.

Lincoln, who sent 620,000 Americans to their deaths to defeat secession, nevertheless respected the men his armies eventually overcame. When the news of Appomattox reached Washington, a crowd gathered outside the White House in celebration. The Great Emancipator paid homage to his vanquished foes by asking the band to play "Dixie."

If Lincoln were alive today, he would say let the South honor its heroes. Race relations aren't advanced by denigrating a symbol good Americans died for, even in a misguided crusade.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate