A defense of the Confederate flag

Wade Yarbrough of Apple Valley waded into hostile territory in today’s Star Tribune with his op-ed urging restraint in judging people who fly the Confederate flag.

His family flew it once a year in Richfield, he writes. His dad grew up in Georgia and was stationed at Fort Snelling.

And on Robert E. Lee’s birthday each year, up went the flag.

Yarbrough says one year the neighbors circulated a petition to force a black family out of the neighborhood.

I happened to be home one afternoon when there was a knocking at the door. I opened it, and there stood our neighbor from across the street, Art, holding a clipboard. He asked if Pop was in, and I called him over. Art told Pop the neighbors were putting together a petition to get the new couple to move out.

Pop told him, “Look, Art, I don’t know if the man is good, bad or indifferent, but I sure as hell am not signing any petition against him.” I never heard any more about the petition. As I recall, we received far fewer Christmas cards that year. Two years later the couple moved out, after being fine neighbors.

Whenever I read or hear about Minnesota smugness toward a Southern state, I always think back to that time. A time when a mixed-race couple had the temerity to move into a lily-white Minnesota suburb in 1967, and a Southern gentleman who happened to fly the Confederate flag once a year befriended and defended them.

It’s a fine story, but it doesn’t necessarily neutralize a fact in the news today: The Ku Klux Klan has received approval from South Carolina officials to hold a pro-Confederate flag rally at the state capitol.

In his op-ed, Yarbrough appropriately takes note of his father’s favorite saying: “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”

  • MrE85

    His dad may have been a nice guy. But that’s not the point. That flag is still offensive, regardless what is in the hearts and souls of the people who display it. The fact that his father only flew the Stars ‘n Bars one day a year was a clue that the old man knew it was wrong, too.
    Go ahead and remember your father as the great guy he was, Wade. But that flag stays folded in the closet, okay?

    • Kassie

      Also, it was 1967. Times were quite different. I hope that his not-a-racist father would feel different about it today.

      • Edsel Brewers

        Times weren’t different in 1967, it was offensive then and it is now.

        • Kassie

          Really? Times aren’t different? There is no way any national television show would include two guys who drove around in a car with the confederate flag painted on it, but that happened from 1979-1985. It was offensive/racist then, yes, but we did not have the collective understanding that it was racist and seen as aggression by African Americans.

  • mcwhirter

    The author was not defending the confederate flag.

  • I was reading something yesterday re: Robert E. Lee … that for his funeral, Lee specifically requested that the Confederate (battle) flag NOT be flown or shown. (It was the Army of North Virginia – Lee’s army – that used the Stars ‘n Bars in battles.) Mr. Yarborough might want to refresh his knowledge of history:

    “Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave. At
    his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession.
    Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military
    uniforms, and neither did the body they buried.”

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/15/even-robert-e-lee-wanted-the-confederate-flag-gone.html

    • Nick K

      Just for historical context the Stars and Bars (the first flag of the Confederacy) is not the same at the Confederate battle flag. The Stars and Bars looks a lot like an American flag, but it only has three stripes (red, white, red) and fewer stars in the canton.

      • You are correct. I have to revise my own historical knowledge!

      • Brian

        Also, the battle flag was square.

        • Nick K

          Really? I didn’t know that! Thanks, I also learned something.

  • Gary F

    So where does this “offensive” flag stuff end? Louis Farhakahn wants the current US flag banned because he finds it offensive. How about a Cuban Castro era flag? North Korean? Gadsden flags? The Rising Sun flag of Japan?

    • As soon as someone cites Louis Farhakahn, I move on to the sports section.

      That said, I wonder if the questions you’re asking are the same ones some people asked when they decided to rename “N-word” Lake?

      http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/06/30/minnesota-lake-names

    • crystals

      You do know there’s a meaningful difference between flags being out and about in the world in the hands of private citizens and it being flown above a state capitol, right?

    • Joseph

      Some on taht cannot differentiate between Farhakahn’s argument and the argument against the Confederate flag needs to spend some time refreshing their education.

    • Who is banning the Battle Flag of the Army of N. Virginia?

      Feel free to display it on the back of your pickup truck if you wish, just don’t fly it on government land.

    • Postal Customer

      Gadsden Flag? Is that the one that says “Dont Laugh At Me”

      • Jay T. Berken

        The language of the people of late that wave the Gadsden Flag without a doubt has a secessionist tone to it.

    • Where will flying it end — how do we feel about modern Germans flying the Nazi flag and explaining it as their “heritage”?

  • Nick K

    Stories like this just go to show that, as in many things, context is king. Clearly it can be used as a symbol of hate – but it can also be used by people celebrating their heritage.

    • Just like the Nazi flag, right?

      /Godwinned?

      • Nick K

        So you think context doesn’t matter? Then what would you make of President Obama’s use of the n*word? Also, the Swastika is used by people of faith, all over the world, because it is a religious symbol the Nazis stole. So yes, just like that.

        • Why can’t the Nazi flag be used as a symbol celebrating their “Aryan” heritage?

          >>Also, the Swastika is used by people of faith, all over the world, because it is a religious symbol the Nazis stole.<<

          So the meaning of that swastika has changed and now symbolizes something vile, much like what has happened with the Battle Flag of N. Virginia.

          • Jeff

            Yep, we don’t get to pick a time when we want the flag or any other symbol to represent what it did then. In 2015 the stars and bars is considered a symbol of racism. The Nazis took over the swastika, too bad for people who like it as a religious symbol but it’s just the way it is.

          • The 45th Division of the US Army used a swastika as a design feature up until the Nazis came to power. At that point they changed it to a “Thunderbird.”

          • Nick K

            The meaning of the Swastika hasn’t changed. It is still widely used in Southeast and Central Asia in both religious and non-religious uses.
            People do use it in the context of hate. I’m not really in favor of that as I am not in favor of the KKK using the confederate battle flag as a symbol of intolerance.

          • >>The meaning of the Swastika hasn’t changed.<<

            You seriously don't think most people think "Nazi Germany" when they see a swastika?

          • Jason Voskuil

            Big difference between clockwise and anti-clockwise swastikas.

          • Nick K

            Both are used in the context at hand. Jainism, for one, uses the one that the Nazis stole.

          • Tell that to the average person.

          • Nick K

            Correct. The majority of the world lives in China, India, and SE and Central Asia. The Swastika means something very different in those cultures. That’s a viewpoint, of course, that depends on a non-western-centric view of the world.

          • Jen

            >>So the meaning of that swastika has changed and now symbolizes something vile, much like what has happened with the Battle Flag of N. Virginia.

            Well, except as a battle flag of a Confederate state, it always symbolized something vile. The Confederate states seceded over slavery. That’s what the Civil War was about. Sure, I suppose someone could genuinely claim they fly it for Southern Pride, but the flag only exists because the South went to war for the right to own slaves.

        • Brian

          Of course context matters. Unfortunately for people wishing to celebrate their southern heritage, flying the “confederate flag” has come to mean some form of racist/anti-civil-rights sentiment to most people (for the reasons Bob says in his comment below). Similar to the n-word, it might be possible to “reclaim” the image, but (also similarly) you can’t expect no push back against its use.

          Also, it would be pretty clear what you are saying if you fly a Nazi flag, even if the swastika itself has other meanings.

          • Exactly.

            >> The majority of the world lives in China, India, and SE and Central Asia.<> The Swastika means something very different in those cultures.<<

            That is true, but then again I was talking directly about the flag of Nazi Germany, not the swastika in general.

          • Nick K

            I interpreted the flag of Nazi Germany to mean the swastika as that is the primary element of the flag and as that is the part that offends (since it isn’t just the flag that pushes people’s buttons and the swastika, in a Nazi context, is the symbol – rather then just one flag design).

            And when I say “most people” I am coming from the Euro-centric “most people”, but you knew that.” And that brings us full circle. You have shown that context matters. Not all places that display the swastika are showing support for Nazis and not all people who fly the Confederate flag are supporting racism and hatred. Its that fact, the differing contexts, that need to be understood and acknowledged if we want change to happen.

          • Jay T. Berken

            Please show us where in the world the Confederate Flag is used as a symbol that was not base on racism and hatred like the Swastika in Southeast Asia?

          • Nick K

            You read the post right? That was the entire point of Yarbrough’s story… the part about how for his father the flag didn’t mean racism or come from racist beliefs. In fact, that is why there is a brouhaha about this; many people fly the flag for reasons that are not about racism or hatred (at least that’s there claim).

          • And yet the Battle Flag (as well as the “Stars and Bars” flag) has come to symbolize something vile, in much the same way a Nazi flag has come to symbolize something vile.

            Sure the person flying one of these flags can be exhibiting their “Southern Heritage” but to a goodly portion of those witnessing such a display, the flag flyer just comes across as being racist.

          • Jay T. Berken

            I’m sorry, but your argument can’t be jumping from arguing how the “perception” of the Swastika is different around the world, and then how different people “perceive” the Confederate Flag. Let me ask you it this way, will you give me an area of the world in which the Confederate Flag is not perceived as secession from the United States of America and the preservation of slavery?

          • Nick K

            “Let me ask you it this way, will you give me an area of the world in which the Confederate Flag is not perceived as secession from the United States of America and the preservation of slavery?” I don’t see why I would do this. You seem intent on setting up some kind of straw man argument where if you can just show that a lot of people find the Confederate flag to be offensive then somehow the context of the display doesn’t matter. My argument doesn’t hinge on there being some “area of the world” (say a guys front porch?) in which the Confederate flag is perceived in a certain way. My argument rests on the idea that there are contexts where a Confederate flag is something other then an overt symbol of racism. I think such a context exists. Can it exist in front of the South Carolina statehouse as something other then a symbol of a failed bid to maintain slavery? I don’t know. That’s what people are discussing and I think that conversation is good. What you want to do is label it as universally bad – I don’t think that is helpful.

          • Jay T. Berken

            My point is, the Confederate flag is universally seen as secession from the United States and of the preservation of slavery. Unlike the Swastika which in Southeast Asia it is seen as something other then Nazism.

          • ed

            I am someone that agrees with Nick, and I am in the universe. Therefore you are wrong, it’s really that simple. Not that you care to acknowledge a worldview outside your own, but when I see that flag, I don’t immediately think that person is going to be a racist. I think that person is defiant, and might be an ignorant pig, or might just wish to incite controversy and expresses his disdain for federalism.

      • Paul

        Godwin’s Law (or Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies) is an Internet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” — from Wikipedia.

        Godwinning a thread does not end the thread.

  • Joseph

    The Confederate flag presents treason. If you want to flyit I guess that is your thoughtless choice. But don’t get repsect and honjor for a family member obscure the fact that the flag represents treason and not single element of what it represents is worthy of respect or honor.

    • Nick K

      You know what other flag was first raised during treasonous revolt? The current American flag.

      • You know what flag was carried by the marchers from Selma to Montgomery? The American flag.

        You know what flag was displayed back at them by racist white people who didn’t think blacks should vote? The Confederate flag.

        • Nick K

          That’s great, but the comment was about it being unacceptable because of its relationship to rebellion. That fact is not relevant to the discussion about the flag as a symbol of hate. It is a red herring that distracts from the important discussion at hand.

          • You’re arguing that context doesn’t matter at the same time you’re arguing context matters.

          • Nick K

            No. I’m not. The statement made was essentially: flag used during rebellion is automatically bad. I made the point that that view is not correct. I understand that was not the point of your blog post, but that was the point of the comment I was responding to.

          • The problem is, audience determines interpretation. Or to put it another way, the swastika meant something different to religious people before Hitler, and probably still means less to people who weren’t in the European field of operations. That doesn’t make the swastika less offensive to people who associate it with Nazis. The cross is a very mixed symbol, and negative to quite a few people; but not to Christians. Everyone’s acting like Humpty-Dumpty and saying, “A flag means what I say it means, neither more nor less.” And getting annoyed because meaning doesn’t work like that.

      • Joseph

        And I would never claim that our flag represented anything but our country, flaws and all. A universal symbol like a flag is poor representation of morals or ethics or honor – mainly because it may be adopted by any creepy scum bag.

        • Nick K

          “A universal symbol like a flag is poor representation of morals or ethics or honor – mainly because it may be adopted by any creepy scum bag.” Well said. I’m going to use that in future discussions.

      • Well, history is written by the victors. “Literalist” revisionism not so much. So, we should ban the Stars-and-Stripes because it, too, once-upon-a-time represented treason (and slavery)? Until 1938, the Nazi flag represented the resurgence of German pride, industry and national economy from under the crushing thumb of the Treaty of Versailles. /sarcasm off

      • Rich Olson

        We own that treasonous revolt, Nick. Unless you are a subject of Her Royal Majesty, the Queen of England.

  • crystals

    One of my former students in rural NC – a white male now 30-ish years old – wrote a moving post last week about why he owned the flag as a kid and how he feels about it now. I wish someone would run THAT as an op-ed.

    • Knute

      Is it posted anywhere public? If so, link?

      • crystals

        I wish. Here’s a tidbit (and it may be relevant to share that he’s a veteran): “It is the symbol of a rebellion that caused more deaths of Americans than any other war. It’s the symbol of a rebellion that was defeated by the U.S. It has no more place in this day, other than to remind people of a tragic war, and a group of rebels who lost a war. A war that cost 600,000+ Americans. A war that had cousins and brothers fighting each other. A war that literally divided our nation. As far as SC goes, it was flown again in 1962 as a symbol of resistance of the civil rights movement and segregation. You may say it’s your heritage, or that it has nothing to do with racism as far as you regard it, but fact of the matter is, it is associated with such feelings.”

  • Rich in Duluth

    The thing is, flags have symbolic meaning and without knocking on the door of the guy flying a Confederate flag, you don’t really know why it’s flying. Flying the U.S. Flag is usually assumed to symbolize patriotism and support for the U.S.A. The symbolism behind the Confederate flag is that of support for rebellion, states rights, and slavery or honoring heritage. While flags are imperfect communication tools, they do make statements that are assumed by the general public.

    Personally, I don’t care if an individual or even the KKK flies the Confederate flag. What bothers me and what I think is wrong is when an official, taxpayer supported state government flies this symbol of rebellion against the U.S.A. I’m glad those flags are coming down.

  • Edsel Brewers

    I live in the South and the only reason anyone around here flies it is to intimidate black people.

  • Jeff

    At the risk of repeating my comments (and others) below, I’m having a lot of trouble understanding any of the apologists here. At one time the flag might have been symbolic of Southern pride and history but in 2015 it’s considered offensive regardless of your intentions. By analogy at one time (in the distant past) you could stick up my middle finger and no one would care but now everyone would be offended. Symbology isn’t static.

  • Eric

    In the author’s story defending his father and his father’s habit of flying the confederate flag, it is interesting that with the two neighbors he writes about the white neighbor is given a name “Art” and the other in his writing is only called “a black man” and “the guy.” Why doesn’t he get an identity? This is an example of the subtle racism of the white people being individuals and the black people being an unidentified other.

    • Wade Yarbrough

      I can answer that. My family moved into Richfield in about 1949, I was born in ’51. Art had already lived there for many years. In ’67 I had known Art all my life. I had known the couple behind us for less than two years. I really tried to remember their names and I can not, it was 48 years ago, sorry..

  • lindblomeagles

    Here’s the point Wade missed, but Bob didn’t. The Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacists groups, adopted the Confederate Flag for their cause from Secession – 2015. That flag is not an old relic, and it no longer means “states rights,” because the Civil War put that question to rest. The states have limited rights, period. End of story. Now, let’s turn back to the people who fly that flag. They are convinced Blacks and Democrats seek a PC world. Again, as Bob mentioned, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists groups, still use the Confederate Flag as their official symbol; THEREFORE, if you don’t want to be considered racist or pro-slavery or anti-immigrant, don’t fly that flag. Find some other alternative.

  • Michael McCarthy

    what happened to my comment

  • Khatti

    The notion that this is anything other than punishing white southerners for being white southerners is a joke.

  • Jamie Clemons

    you don’t even want to begin with the history of the US flag then.