Friday, July 24, 2015

The Confederate Flag -- the Symbol of the South

The following post grew out of a comment made to a yankee on a news report comment thread

The Confederate Flag, which originally symbolized the soldiers who fought and died beneath it, acquired more history and culture, and thus more meaning, with each generation.  Thus, the five or six generations of Southerners following the civil war, and their culture, and the events they lived, contributed to the growing, deepening meaning of the flag.

For example the seven decades or so of grinding poverty endured by huge numbers of Southerners after the war because northern money and industrialists deliberately prevented industry from developing in the South. After the war, carpetbaggers came south and bought miles of virgin timber land and paid Southerners, black and white, slave wages to work in their sawmills, and kept them in perpetual debt with their "company stores."

Discriminatory freight rates deliberately kept industry from developing in the South, and kept a huge percentage of the Southern population in poverty. For those who've never heard of discriminatory freight rates, or their impact on the South, here's an introduction....

In any case, while Cornelius Vanderbilt II and other wealthy northern industrialists were building 100-room "cottages" in Newport, Southerners were dying in epidemics of pellagra and hookworm, thanks to their poverty diets of fatback and cornbread...

Senator Jim Webb's book Born Fighting gives a stark look at what the deliberate suppression of industry in the south resulted in, that continued well into the 20th century:
In 1937 13 southern states had 36 million people, 97% of whom were native born. With 28% of the country's population, it had in the words of the report [commissioned by FDR], only 16% of the tangible assets, including factories, machines and the tools with which people make a living. With more than half the country's farmers the South had less than 1/5th of the farm implements. In 1930 there were nearly twice as many Southern farms of less than 20 acres as in 1880. (It was being carved up into smaller and smaller portions).

Of vital importance, the educational base of the South had been decimated. Illiteracy in the South was almost 5 times as high as in the north central states, and more than double the rate in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. In 1936 the Southern states spent an average of $25.11 per child in schools, at the same time the average child enrolled in New York state had $141 spent on his education.

In 1937 the average annual income in the South was only 314 while the rest of the country averaged 604, nearly twice as much, even in the middle of a depression. An actual majority of the farmers in the South did not own their own land, instead having to operate as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Tenant farmers averaged $73 for a years work. Sharecroppers varied from $38 a year (a dime a day) to $87, depending on the state. While few black families were on the high end of the economic scale, it would be wrong to assume, as so many social scientists of today immediately do, that they alone dominated the low end. As the report mentioned, white and negroes have suffered alike. Of the 1,000,831 tenant families in the region, about 66% were white. The white south's population at that time was 71%. Approximately half the sharecroppers were white, living under conditions almost identical with those of negro sharecroppers.

Tenant farming and sharecropping had evolved from two post-civil war realities -- the first that many large plantation owners were left with plenty of land but no capital or labor to work it. Hundreds of thousands of former slaves and impoverished white were willing to work but had no land. The result was the crop sharing system. These practices fell even harder on tenant farmers and sharecroppers due to the fragility of the Southern banking system. As the report indicated, lacking capital of its own, the South had been forced to borrow from outside financiers who have reaped a rich harvest in the form of interest and dividends. At the same time, it has had to hand over the control of much of its business and industry to investors from wealthier sections. Although the region contained 28% of the country's population in July 1937, its banks held less than 11% of the nation's bank deposits.

Born Fighting by Jim Webb,
Broadway Books; 1st edition (October 5, 2004)
Our pride in our ancestors for surviving not only the war, but what followed in the subsequent generations, is just one of the many circumstances of Southern history, heritage and culture bound up into the meaning of the flag.

I thoroughly dislike and disapprove of embellishments on the Confederate flag associated with biker-gang culture, for which the flag symbolizes meaningless rebellion. These embellishments include marijuana leaves, skulls, grim reaper figures and such.

I also don't like the word "Redneck" or an eighteen wheeler, a jumping fish or white tailed deer, etc., but at least these symbols have a connection to the history and culture of the South. People may hunt and fish for sport and leisure today, but it wasn't that long ago that large numbers of Southerners did that to survive.  The eighteen wheeler symbolizes the working man and the term redneck, which just means "country" to a lot of people today, harkens back to the days of sharecropping.
The term characterized farmers having a red neck caused by sunburn from hours working in the fields. A citation from 1893 provides a definition as "poorer inhabitants of the rural who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin stained red and burnt by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks."  Frederic Gomes Cassidy & Joan Houston Hall, Dictionary of American Regional English (2002) p. 531, per Wikipedia.
So these symbols, objectionable though they may be as embellishments on the flag of the Confederate soldier, have historic connections to the South, and symbolize the tenacity and survivability of the Southern people, which are apt reasons for Southern pride.

And there is another huge reason for Southern pride -- our sense of difference.
For the South and its people are profoundly marked by a sense of difference from the rest of the United States and, again if they are white Southerners, by a pride in that difference. John Osborne, The Old South, Time-Life Library of America
Of course, not all the things that gave added meaning to the flag through the generations were positive but it is wrong to say only the negative defines it, and totally defines it, which is what critics are trying to do, and what so many of us are fighting against.

Recently, Brooks Simpson made a big deal out of the flag embellishments I've discussed above, and attempted to pin responsibility for them on all of Southern heritage. Not that his opinion matters, but I note that, with some exceptions, the same embellishments he mentions also appear on the US flag.  He should be upset about that -- after all, THAT flag is a flag of sovereignty. But do you think he cares about that? I've had one flogger tell me flat out he didn't care whether the US flag was shamed and dishonored.

Nope, what we have here is another example of Simpson's ugly hypocrisy and double standards...

1 comment :

  1. When it comes to flags, the same baggage that can be associated with the Confederate flag, can be associated with the United States flag many times over. Also remember the United States flag is the official Flag of the KKK.


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