Obama win and Confederate flag raising a coincidence that speaks volumes
On the same Tuesday that Barack Obama became the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination for president, local activists raised a Confederate flag the size of a semitrailer truck at the intersection of Interstates 75 and 4.
Some might suggest an indirect connection — that supporters of Confederate history, angry that their heritage has been overlooked in the rush to celebrate multicultural achievement, wanted an in-your-face way to grab the area’s attention.
And they would be right.
“We’ve been marginalized and put off and ostracized for the last 20 years,” said Marion Lambert, a Tampa member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He said he didn’t plan specifically to raise the flag on Obama’s big day but doesn’t mind the juxtaposition. “We’re using this ultimate weapon we have been given by a society which ostracized it.”
Lambert unfurled the flag for the day on Tuesday for the 200th birthday of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis, planing to display it permanently when a Civil War monument there is finished. His position: The Confederate battle flag isn’t solely a pro-slavery symbol, and the memorial will outline that history for anyone prompted to stop after seeing the flag.
Lambert's position was echoed by Darryl Starnes, chief of heritage defense for the national SCV. "Over the past few years, we've had so many of our monuments and flags taken down...we're losing our heritage," said Starnes, whose title reveals his stance on the issue. "So there's not many alternatives to us, except to establish our own memorials"
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that increases in America’s diversity often produce a backlash. Look back a century, and the rise of industrialism fed a backlash against Catholic immigrants taking factory jobs. These days, globalization fuels the frustration of anti-illegal immigration scolds such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs.
Potok takes pains to not that the SCV is not considered a racist hate group, though the group's leaders have consistently struggled with a racist faction inside the group drawn by it's pro-South imagery.
“The country is going to lose its white majority by 2015 and we may have a black president next year,” Potok said. “That brings real reactions from white people who are not klansmen or neo-Nazis.”
Gaines Foster, a history professor at Louisiana State University, said the SCV echoes efforts by some Southerners to minimize the role of slavery in the Civil War — a notion many historians now reject.
He noted current flag friction also references the way segregationists made the Confederate battle flag their symbol in the civil rights era. “When you’re flying a flag you’re not just celebrating the past, you’re making a statement about the present,” Foster said. "A flag exists in the present in a way most historical markers don't."
As with many conflicts over race, this fight features sides so deeply entrenched compromise may not be possible -- though one wonders why the SCV doesn't just admit the battle flag’s connection to segregationists and fly another flag. Doesn’t Obama’s success also suggest there’s a way to bridge this gap?
“I don’t know,” said Lambert. “The emotionalism here is like fire and brimstone. I’m not sure that’s debatable.”