In the final chapter of Ken Burns’s landmark 1990 documentary “The Civil War,” Columbia University history professor and author Barbara Fields considered the thorny question of who won that war, the defining event in American history.
“If we’re not talking just about the series of battles that finished up with the surrender at Appomattox, but talking instead of the struggle to make something higher and better out of the country, then the question gets more complicated,” she said. “The slaves won the war — and they lost the war. They won freedom — that is, the removal of slavery. But they did not win freedom, as they understood freedom.”
While history claims the Civil War ended 150 years ago, it is not, nor has it ever been, a distant echo. Each racist indignity, whether at the hands of race-baiting politicians, callous law enforcement officers, or murderous bigots, is another dissonant note of national shame. Like their ancestors, African-Americans today are constantly reminded that freedom imagined is not freedom realized. Always, there are signifiers to keep black people in their place, to let them know their existence hinges on the mercy of those who, without provocation, can ruthlessly crush their fragile sense of well-being.
The Confederate battle flag has long been one of those signifiers. Yet why did it take the massacre of nine black people in a South Carolina church by an alleged white supremacist for many to recognize that infernal banner for what it is? For more than a century, white American terrorists committed to enforcing the flag’s obscene principles have spilled the blood of black men, women, and children. Was their sacrifice not enough?
Now, after a national outcry, states are scrambling to remove the flag from government property and license plates. Retailers, including Walmart and Amazon, are banning products bearing its image. Even the swelling scrum of White House-minded Republicans, once for the Confederate flag, is now against it. Of course, with the 2016 elections looming, that sudden about-face is only about minimizing distractions.
While the overdue removal of the flag is welcome, it also feels, to borrow the right-wing parlance, like a false flag. Banishing the banner is meaningless unless the entrenched racism that allowed its presence to be tolerated, and even celebrated, is also exiled with as much vigor and purpose. And that’s a far more formidable task, especially when so many seem unwilling to acknowledge racism, let alone doing anything about it. In the 1860s, many insisted the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery; today, some refuse to acknowledge that the accused Charleston shooter’s motives were racially motivated. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican presidential candidate, even said the alleged mass murderer’s actions were more like “Mideast hate. That’s something I didn’t think we had here, but apparently we do.” Somehow, Graham has managed to dismiss centuries of bloody, racist American history.
Those of us above the Mason-Dixon line often sneer at the inability of some white Southerners to accept their region’s epic loss. What we fail to understand is that they have never consigned the Civil War to the past — for them, the Confederate battle flag is a living heritage. For the rest of us, to overlook greater battles being waged in favor of symbolic victories like the removal of an archaic banner, risks a defeat this nation cannot bear. The Civil War, our forever war, haunts and rages still. What Fields said 25 years ago about the conflict was prescient, and remains sadly relevant now: “It’s still to be fought and, regrettably, it can still be lost.”
Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe.