When I was a Boy Scout in Leland, Mississippi, my patrol in Troop 42 called itself “the Rebels” during 1976. I still have locked in a trunk somewhere little wooden blocks I painted with the names of each scout imposed over a crude image of the Confederate battle flag – a wall decoration of some sort for the scout hall. I was fascinated by the Confederacy, the Civil War, the rebel monuments on every courthouse lawn, the headstone of my ancestor Morris Foshee, with its inscription of his unit, the 47th Alabama infantry.

For a southern boy raised in the wet hothouse of what I call neo-Confederate, nostalgic triumphalism, it is astonishing to see the swift political moves in South Carolina to lower the Confederate battle emblem in the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. All the more so, when compared to the decades of intransigence about Confederate symbols in the South and among a certain lethargic group of white Americans everywhere.  How could this change happen in the blink of eye – if it does – when there was such fierce resistance and seeming fealty in the recent past to that striking blue cross and 13 stars on a red field?

Virulent racism

It is a mistake however, to interpret the resilience of the Confederate battle flag as “popularity” among large numbers of people, or as something that triggers outpourings of affection or other positive emotions.  It is wrong even to suggest that support for public display of the flag is even closely related – as it was for me in childhood – to some fond remembrance of the past, or even a sentimental connection to soldiers of long ago who sacrificed for a cause they believed in. No, only the tiniest numbers of southerners with an attachment to the emblem of the Confederate revolt have even a vague awareness of their familial connections to the Civil War, or even faintly what life looked like in the sweaty, un-airconditioned, drawling, poverty stricken, overalls bedecked, brutish farm boy landscape of the pre-1960s South. Only the most dedicated sad-sack members of the Sons of the Confederacy or unshaven faux intellectuals at loony fringe groups like the “League of the South,” or naive little boys in the 1970s, can even tell you that the “Rebel flag” began as a symbol of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and gradually came to identify in the eyes of all Americans the entire white southern uprising to defend slavery. Even fewer white southerners can tell their own family histories – like that of my great-great-grandfather Foshee, and his years as an obscure private under that banner in the 47th Alabama.

No, the seeming immovability of that symbol over the past half century has been about something very different from an appreciation of actual history.  The modern resurrection and defence of the flag was wholly a product of the civil rights struggles since the 1950s, and the need for a rallying point for defenders of segregation and apologists for white discrimination and white privilege.  The flag wasn’t even flying in most southern states until the 1960s, and then it was hoisted with the explicit intention of telling the rest of the country, finally emerging from its own racial dark ages, to go to hell. And wherever that flag was invoked, it was accompanied in those days by explicit defences of the most virulent racism and ethnic hate.

There was no sugar coating what it meant. The legislators and state officials who brought the battle flag out of the closet in the 1960s were the exact same people who openly praised the murders of civil rights workers, openly called Dr Martin Luther King Jr a communist ape, openly predicted the “mongrelisation” of the white race if segregation ended, publicly said science proved the mental inferiority of African-Americans.  The flag was as open a symbol of violent oppression of black people and resistance to democracy, as the German swastika was the symbol of fascism and a desperate desire to murder the Jews of Europe.  Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who said ending segregation would be to “drink from the cup of genocide,” knitted together all the imagery, meanings and vile intentions in September 1962, in a 15-word speech at an Ole Miss football game. Standing in a Nuremberg-esque sea of Confederate battle banners, Barnett declared: “I love Mississippi. I love her people, our customs. I love and respect our heritage.” The next day, thousands of white men attacked federal marshals protecting the first black student to enrol at the university. It took 30,000 federal troops to restore calm.

The private letters among carriers of the Confederate battle flag back then are most remarkable in one way: those men actually believed the heinous things they were saying in public. And they acted under a misguided belief that most of the rest of white America, actually shared those views deep down.  They honestly believed the Civil Rights Movement was an aberration – a course deviation caused by one spectacularly gifted black orator, his weak-bellied liberal supporters, and, it surely must be, his secret controllers in the Soviet Union.  They truly believed all that for a good reason: just 15 or 20 years earlier, they would have been right. In the 1940s, white Americans in every part of the country – including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, most members of his cabinet and the majority of the Supreme Court–agreed that almost all black people were naturally inferior to white people.  When southern politicians resurrected Confederate emblems in the 1960s, it was part of a genuine, if gigantically mistaken, belief that white Americans everywhere could be led or inspired back to their own past racist instincts.

Fortunately, that effort failed. Spectacularly.

Window dressing

The refusal to take the flag back down over the 50 years since then has been simply this: an effort to falsely obscure the explicitly racist nature of those leaders – and white southerners and lots of other white Americans generally – in that two-decade long extended moment of national decision when white southern men, women, teachers, preachers, politicians, police, judges, doctors, lawyers, mechanics and every other stripe overwhelmingly failed. Faced with the greatest question of social conscious they would ever confront, they failed as Americans. They failed as Christians. They failed as believers in freedom. They failed as parents and grandparents. And for the next two generations or more, it became important among white southerners to conceal or excuse that abject failure.

As it became apparent that the nation collectively rejected the immoral, backward views of the white South, it became necessary to “window dress” what had happened. The argument hadn’t been about white supremacy, they began to claim, it was about the government getting too big. The objection wasn’t about having black and white kids in school together, it was about violence on campus, they said. They hadn’t meant to suggest that all black boys are inclined to rape, only that teen pregnancy and “welfare queens” are not good. They hadn’t meant to suggest that the people whose labour they had exploited for 300 years were in fact lazy and incompetent. And  yes, as Governor Barnett told you in 1962, the Confederate battle flag wasn’t about suppressing black people, or defending slavery, or endorsing the violence of the Klan. It was about bravery, honour, appreciation of genteel women, limited government and constitutional principles.

It was about “heritage not hate.”

Tide is turning

The reason the tide may be turning against this long misuse of the Confederate flag is because, thankfully, enough time and generations have passed that the number of Americans who know anything about the flag or have any legitimate interest in it is getting smaller and smaller. The architects of the flag propaganda of another time have, presumably in the wisdom of god, been taken from the earth, and those of us who remain didn’t listen well.  It’s not just young African-Americans who don’t know as much as they should about the abuses suffered by their forebears; hardly any young Americans are interested in all that unpleasant past – especially now that so many of them are dating or coveting members of the other race, listening to Hip Hop and seeing a black man in the White House. One way or another,  it has been absorbed that black people achieving some semblance of equality did not in fact cause the earth to consume itself in fire.

So the only people today who exhibit the Confederate flag – other than state governments, ironically, and a few holdout private schools – are in fact white supremacists, loutish rednecks, a has-been country music singer or two, neo-Nazis, and pathetically undereducated fools. Oh, and yes, people who make meth in broken down trailer houses.

That wasn’t the case as recently as the debate in Georgia 20 years ago that led to the removal of the battle emblem from that state flag, or the statewide vote on changing the flag in Mississippi at about the same time. (It failed – with even African-American voters supporting the flag in a twisted expression of home state “loyalty.”) Even as late as those events in the 1990s, there were still a lot of aging white southern males around who had grown up feeling, even after the dust had settled, that the civil rights movement had been at a minimum “unfair” to whites and wrongly impugned them and their fathers before them.

Even if polite about race in public, they were still offended by and quietly seething at the suggestion that poverty and other difficulties of African-Americans were the fault of past and present white racism – instead of laziness as they had always believed. They still needed to believe their teachers were truthful when they taught the historical hoax that enslaved people actually liked slavery in the 1850s, and were happy to have been brought to America – saved from cannibalism, paganism and bestiality. That generation of southern men were not generally supporters of the Ku Klux Klan or racial violence, but at their core they enjoyed the idea that the continued use of the flag bothered the people who so bothered them. They didn’t care a whit – or generally even know a whit–about the true history of the flag or their own connections to the slave-holders rebellion, but they relished how this antiseptic and increasingly invoked “heritage” propaganda innocently explained the battle flag and could be used to goad the critics they so despised.

But time marched on those gentlemen. Those ageing white males are no longer the overwhelmingly dominant cohort in the southern states – just as those white voters are declining in political control of the South. Hence Virginia, Florida and North Carolina are presidential battleground states. Georgia is in play. Not many people are so obtuse still to believe that the declining performance educationally and economically of white males in rural America, especially the South, is because of affirmative action or because black people today are allowed to go to high school, and to vote.

Reality check

We all understand pretty clearly now that a Dylann Roof actually has to stand on his own two feet.  He can’t depend on an entrenched system of silent abuse and unspoken conspiracy to prevent women or African-Americans from seeking the same entry level job that Dylann might have desired.  He can’t count on “heritage” and tradition to make sure that the majority of the black kids in his town can’t get an education sufficient to seek upwardly mobile employment –as heritage and customs guaranteed for 150 years. The Dylann Roofs of the world have to actually compete now. And for the first time in at least a century, they actually have to be men now – not just members of  cowardly mobs protecting themselves with violence and intimidation, and always anonymously.  We all understand that now, at least on some level.  The government isn’t going to ensure your success by openly harming black people for you any more, white man. You’re actually on your own now. The petty complaints and invented aggrievements of that generation–blaming black people for all their woes – make sense to a smaller and smaller group of other people now. Even the sons of the men who still feverishly insisted on that pitiful, self-emasculating logic 20 and 30 years ago increasingly don’t get their own dads any more.

It’s not dissimilar to what happened with gay marriage: at some point the hollow nature of ridiculously inflexible positions simply begins to be obvious – especially when confronted by some event so clearly horrifying and indefensible as what happened in Charleston.

That’s the reality that Dylann Roof – and the rest of his scraggly, stupid ilk – are truly reeling from. Their own inadequacy. Their own failures. The slow disappearance of the certainty that all the white men will look out for all the other white men first–and somehow still save some kind of place even for the broken, intellectual runts like him.  The Dylann Roofs of American today instinctively realize that their day is past.  He never even had that day. They see white girls at school making the very rational choice to prefer over them black boys who are actually going somewhere. They discover that the police are willing to arrest them too for their petty drug schemes–and that harsh sentencing laws will wreck their misbegotten lives too.

Even the people that the Dylann Roofs once imagined might be allies now profess politics in which white losers like him–along with everyone else–are on their own. The government isn’t here to help anymore.  There is no certainty. Just being white isn’t good enough, Dylann.

So a Dylann Roof lashes out in the perverse way that such an inadequate, violence-intoxicated mind can invent, swathed in the ideas and imagery so intertwined with the Confederate battle flag today. Yet, his rampage becomes a renunciation of whatever little honourable character attached to that symbol long ago.  When my great-great grandfather and the rebels fighting with him to dismantle the United States charged up the hill called Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, in a decisive moment of the Battle of Gettysburg, they and their flag made clear who they were and the wrongs they were fighting for. We can at least give them that. And a third of the regiment of 1,500 fell on the battlefield that day, repulsed, thankfully, by soldiers defending the America we live in now.

Perhaps the Confederate battle flag did represent some sort of misguided valour back then. But no more.

Today, it stands for Dylann Roof, a wretch unable even to meaningfully articulate his anger at being required to take responsibility for himself, enraged at being forced to compete and survive in a world finally glimmering with at least a potential for equality. It stands for a coward like him, stripped of the protection of the lynching mobs that would have carried his flag. It stands for a loser without the spine to tell the people he found at Emanuel church who he truly was or what he truly believed–until he already had his gun trained on them. It stands for people like him who lie – by omission or commission – about their intentions. It stands for a murderer who could only savage the defenceless – who was so blind and terrified by his own emptiness that he would assault the only people who actually wanted to help him.

What bloodless shell of a person would choose to fly such a flag now? Finally, all who are willing can see that.

This article was originally published on Slavery by another name.