Behind the Confederate Flag controversy

Issue 

By Malik Miah

OAKLAND, USA — Some 50,000 people, 90% African-American, marched in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 17, the federal holiday honouring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The protest was organised by the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] to demand that the South Carolina government remove the Confederate flag from the state house. The NAACP pledged to continue its economic boycott of the state until state officials removed the flag.

South Carolina is the only US state that refuses to recognise King's birthday as a national holiday. It is one of eight southern states that continue to celebrate Confederate Heroes' Day on January 19. January 19 is the birthday of rebel traitor General Robert E. Lee. Top officials say they're simply defending "southern heritage" and "state rights."

South Carolina state senator Arthur Ravenel, in a typical comment made by the state's elected bigots, called the civil rights group "the National Association of Retarded People". He later apologised to "retarded people" for mistakenly associating them with the NAACP!

Ravenel told the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert on January 20 that he was not a racist and that he shares an office with "a very fine Black senator", but there was no chance he would apologise to the NAACP. "So far as I'm concerned, they are the enemy. They have instituted an economic boycott of the state and that's a war of sorts", he said.

Is the clock being turned back to the "good old days" of legal segregation?

Segregation

The "new racists" of the south (and north) are not an aberration. However, they are not representative of the majority of white US citizens. Times have changed, even though there are many people in official and unofficial posts who seek to turn back the clock. The world economy and big business cannot tolerate the type of racism that was prevalent in the country following the first slaves' arrival in 1619.

Nevertheless, because racism still wins votes and keeps working people divided along racial and ethnic lines, many white politicians like to play the race card. They all proclaim they're defending "state rights" and "southern heritage" when they are really defending white privilege.

The lack of a strong labour and anti-racist movement makes it easier for the bigots and their right-wing friends to dominate the airwaves and policies of states like South Carolina.

Texan George W. Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, appealing to this layer, refuses to condemn the bigots of South Carolina. He said it is an issue for the people of South Carolina. Not surprisingly, Texas "honours" the Confederate "heroes" who defended slavery.

What does the Confederate flag represent to African Americans and other US citizens of good will? It is not a flag that represents the positive aspects of "southern heritage". It reflects a racist heritage that more and more white southerners openly reject. It is a heritage that sought the break-up of the US in the 1860s through violence in order to maintain a white-supremacist, slave-owning society.

During the civil rights movement, the flag was arrogantly raised to defend racism. That remains true today. "Southern heritage" and "state rights" are code words for conservative reaction.

The hypocrisy of the Republican presidential candidate shows that racism is still a powerful tool to keep working people divided. White workers who believe the rising number of Asian and Latino migrants will automatically shift more political power to people of colour do not understand how power is acquired or operates under capitalism.

Those who have it — Wall Street and big business — never give it up willingly. They are not supporters of genuine democracy. The rich and powerful white men who run the US will do what is necessary, including using the race card, to keep their political and economic power.

South Carolina's Confederate flag was raised above the state house in 1962 only to show defiance at the powerful civil rights movement and to proclaim white superiority. It is still there for that reason.

While African Americans (30% of the state's population) and others in the state, including leading corporate figures who rely on an international market, are pushing to take down the flag, bigots like Ravenel are holding firm.

While the NAACP has suggested that the Confederate flag's proper place is in a museum, the reactionary symbolism of the flag is not, however, the primary motivation for the NAACP's campaign. It is the reality of living racism that concerns the NAACP.

Right-wing counter-offensive

Racism continues to have a material impact on the lives of African Americans throughout the US. The counter-offensive by the right wing in the mainstream parties, governments and courts against affirmative action programs and other gains won since the 1960s is what strikes fear in the hearts of the NAACP leadership and the new middle-class layers in the black community.

The income gap between the haves and have-nots (disproportionately African Americans) continues to widen. What was gained can be lost if a fight is not had. This desire to stop the erosion of gains motivates the NAACP and its supporters.

While some believe that changing demographics in the US mean that we can never go back to legal segregation, US history tells us otherwise. After the Civil War, when the old slave-owning elite was smashed and replaced by the northern ruling class, African Americans briefly won real citizenship rights. Many blacks were elected to public office in the post-Civil War south and made progress toward real equality.

This was all reversed by the 1880s, when the ruling class made a deal with the racists they defeated in the Civil War to return political control in the south once again. The gains won by the former slaves were quickly taken away — first by violence, then legally by new laws.

The freed blacks lost their right to vote and control their destines. The new laws established Jim Crow segregation (and the second-class status of African Americans) and were later codified by Supreme Court decisions. The most famous case is Plessy in 1896, which upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal".

The defeat of what was known as "radical reconstruction" set back not only black rights but workers' struggle in the US for nearly 100 years. The ruling powers simply pulled out the "race card" to trick white workers and farmers into backing them against the rights of African Americans, Latinos and Chinese Americans. The organised labour unions' officials were some of the worst racists.

In California, it was the American Federation of Labor officials that led the public push to get Congress to adopt the "Chinese Exclusion Act". The AFL kept blacks out of the trade unions. It took a powerful civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s to reverse that legal defeat and begin to end segregation — a task far from completed.

It is no wonder that African Americans have always relied on themselves to press for full citizenship and democratic rights. It is why independent black organisations exist and must be on guard against all forms of racism, even symbolic ones such as the Confederate flag.

The power of the black struggle is its militant refusal to "wait" for others to fight back. That is when black and white unity against racism in action is realised.

The battle against the Confederate flag in South Carolina is in that long tradition of resistance. Victory is not only possible but inevitable if the broad unity shown on January 17 is maintained.