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July 19, 2015

The Confederate Flag is down but the Battle over it isn’t over

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Friday, July 10, 2015 was a historic moment in the history of the United States of America. On Friday morning just after 10 a.m., the Confederate flag on South Carolina’s (SC) State House grounds was removed. It was an event that was surely overdue for decades. But thanks to the SC politicians, many of whom were overtly racists, if not covertly, and their supporters within the general population, this flag, which has been seen as a symbol of intolerance and racism by all African-Americans, had remained hoisted all these years, until it was brought down lately. 

So, what made the difference this time? It was that Charleston shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church by a white terrorist - Dylann Roof - who like many other fellow racists revered that confederate flag very dearly. Nine Black church members were shot to death by Roof on June 17 when they were having a Bible Study.

As I noted earlier, the massacre of those African-Americans in Charleston was classified as a possible hate crime and not as terrorism. This, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that the killer himself wanted to ignite a race war. He reportedly had told friends and neighbors of his plans to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston. An online photo showed him sitting on the hood of his parents' car with an ornamental license plate with a Confederate flag on it. He also left a racist manifesto  in which he included photographs holding the flag, visiting the Confederate museum and a Confederate cemetery.

Debates over displaying the Confederate battle flag became quite familiar in South Carolina after the shooting. Most Republicans avoided taking a position on the flag, though Jeb Bush highlighted his role in removing the flag from Florida's Capitol in 2001. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton forcefully called on Americans to discuss racial divisions but avoided talking whether South Carolina should remove the flag from the Capitol complex.Gov. Nikki Haley, who said the issue was worth a conversation, was under immense pressure to convene a special session to take up the flag question.Lawmakers agreed to take down the flag on the week of July 6, following an impassioned debate at the House which went on for over 12 hours. Governor Nikki Haley signed the final legislation to remove the flag on Thursday, July 9, calling for it to come down in a respectful manner.

The politics of the flag are complicated in South Carolina. The Confederate flag was first placed on the dome in the 1960s. In 2000, the flag was moved from the State House dome to the Confederate memorial, amid protest. A November poll from Winthrop University found that 73% of whites in the state want the flag to remain where it is. The same poll reported that 61% of blacks want it taken down.

For some whites, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to the Civil War, the flag represents heritage and pride.

"It's a symbol of family and my ancestors who defended the state from invasion. It was about standing up to a central government," said Chris Sullivan, who is a member of the Sons of the Confederacy. "The things that our ancestors fought for were not novel and they really are the same issues we have today." "What's the difference between the flag and the monument," Sullivan asked. "That's what people are upset about now, but what about later?"

The flag is just one of several monuments that includes a statue of one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond and Ben Tillman, who sought to disenfranchise black citizens while he was governor. A stone marks the site of the state house before Sherman's troops burned it the ground during the Civil War.

Southern states of the United States always has been somewhat different than its northern sister states, not just in matters of resisting to end slavery but on a plethora of issues. After slavery ended, some Southern business leaders moved on to exploiting children.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of children across the country were forced to work in factories, textile mills and mines. The forced labor stunted their growth and kept many away from schools. Factory owners preferred children because they were cheaper, more submissive and less likely to strike.

Southern industrialists became so invested in child labor that when Congress passed a law in 1916 banning child labor, a group of Southern textile mill owners went all the way to the Supreme Court to get the law declared unconstitutional in Hammer vs. Dagenhart, until child labor was outlawed in U.S. v. Darby in 1941.

Southern economics (commonly known as Southernomics) also developed a way to exploit workers through the justice system.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Slavery by Another Name," Douglas A. Blackmon recounts how Southern law enforcement officials routinely arrested poor blacks on trumped-up charges such as selling cotton after sunset. When those arrested could not afford to pay their bond, they would be leased out to private businesses that would work them for free.

After slavery ended, Southern leaders were content to exploit white tenant farmers and child laborers. Some even experimented with bringing in indentured servants or "coolies" from Asia after the Civil War, historian Michael Lind says.

Though the Old South may have lost the military battle during the Civil War, Lind is concerned that it is winning the battle on the economic front. He says more states outside the South are adopting the region's economic model: passing "right-to-work" laws, slashing taxes to attract corporations and pulling back on investing in public services like public schools and infrastructure.

Every Southern state is a "right-to-work" state, which means it has laws that make it more difficult for unions to organize. And though there is a national movement to raise the federal minimum wage, there are still five states that have refused to adopt a state minimum wage. All of them -- Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee -- are in the South.

Less worker power may be one reason the South is often touted as a "business-friendly climate." The Old South has long pioneered other ways of exploiting workers besides weakening their bargaining power, Michael Lind and other historians say. Some Southern governors like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have openly boasted about traveling to other states to steal businesses with promises of low taxes.

The South has consistently been rated by CEOs as the best region to do business in, according to Chief Executive Magazine.

In its 2015 annual survey, the magazine asked CEOs which states were the best and worst for business. The top five most business-friendly states were all in the South, the survey revealed. (Texas was No. 1, followed by Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.)

Supporters of the Southern economic model say that businesses move to states with a more stable labor environment and that more business means more jobs with higher wages. They also say that right-to-work laws actually help unions by forcing them to work harder to retain members.

Lind calls this process the "Southernization" of the American economy and says it's ultimately not about racism."The ongoing power struggle between the local elites of the former Confederacy and their allies in other regions and the rest of the United States is not primarily about personal attitudes. It is about power and wealth," Lind wrote in an essay for Salon entitled, "The South is Holding America Hostage."

Studies of the South, however, suggest that while it may be a good place for business, it isn't necessarily good for people's health and welfare.

Southern residents have the lowest healthy life expectancy of any U.S. citizens regardless of race, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The region also has the worst child poverty -- 12 of the 15 states with the highest child poverty rates are in the South. And Southern states have the highest rate of citizens without health insurance.

On July 10, the flag was on the Confederate memorial and had previously flown from the State House dome. A few minutes before it was set to be removed, the crowd began to chant "Take it down! Take it down!" 

The Honor Guard arrived just after 10 a.m. to take down the flag. Seven members of the guard were present at the ceremony. They pulled the flag down the flag pole quickly. After it was removed, there were chants from the ground and some began singing "Na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye." 

The flag will be moved into the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. A member of the guard rolled up the flag and presented it to the president of the museum. 

The Confederacy may have surrendered on the battlefield in 1865, and its divisive flag brought down in South Carolina Statehouse nearly one and a half century later, but the battle over the Confederate flag is not over yet. Not only does Southernomics persist in other parts of the country as a viable economic model that deliberately keeps ordinary workers weak, dependent and scared but many Americans continue to revere the confederate flag as part of their heritage. Supporters embrace the battle flag as a reminder of ancestors who fought for the Confederacy or as an emblem of regional pride. Critics see it as a symbol of a defiant white supremacist society that fought to perpetuate slavery and segregation.

Just days before the flag was brought down in South Carolina, an eight-mile convoy of pickups, motorcycles and cars wound through a central Florida town Ocala for the "Florida Southern Pride Ride". Some 4,500 people rallied in support of flying the Confederate flag. Horns blared and nearly 2,000 vehicles, adorned with the Civil War-era flag, took part in the gathering. The event was being held to back a decision by Marion County in that area of central Florida to return the Confederate flag to a display outside its government complex.The rally also came as Tennessee announced that it will celebrate the birthday of Confederate army general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Shots were fired at the Ocala rally during an argument over the flag, but no one was injured.The Ocala Star-Banner reported participants wore shirts with phrases including "heritage not hate" and talked of defending Southern traditions, WKMG reported.

"This isn't about hatred. This isn't about racism. This isn't about black and white," a participant said. "We are not in hate of anybody. We just don't want our rights taken away to support our Southern heritage." A replica of the General Lee car from "The Dukes of Hazard" TV show led the procession. Another participant defended flying the Confederate flag, saying "It's a history thing. The flag is also a military flag. It's not a race symbol."

Meanwhile, the next big struggle over Old South symbols is shaping up in Mississippi, the only state that includes the Confederate battle emblem in its state flag. The rebel x has been fluttering over the Capitol and other public buildingssince 1894as part of the state flag. In a 2001 statewide election, people voted nearly 2-to-1 to keep the design.

Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson says the Confederate symbol should be erased from the Mississippi banner because it represents racial hatred and exclusion."It's time to write the next chapter of our history."

North Carolina's Department of Motor Vehicles recently sold out of a series of specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag, local media reported. It has ordered more of the plates, which may be discontinued in the future.

In Hurley, Virginia, the rebel flag is more visible than ever as residents show their support for keeping the local high school's logo, which features the Confederate flag waving from a saber."A backlash is beginning," said Ben Jones, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which represents 30,000 descendants of Confederate soldiers. "We are putting flags out. Everyone time one is taken down, we put five or six of them up."

Last Saturday, July 18, supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers clashed outside the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia; five people were arrested and seven were taken to hospital for medical treatment. "The Confederate flag does not represent hate. A lot of Americans died for that flag," one member of the KKK reportedly told news reporters.

The Columbia rally once again shows that the national push to pull the controversial icon from stores and public displays will continue to be met with determined resistance in some corners of the United States.

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia. Dr. Siddiqui is an alumnus of the prestigious University of  Southern California, Los Angeles, where he earned his Ph.D.