Bob Neal

Before we knew that Brian Sicknick, a Capitol police officer, had been murdered by the mob; before we knew that a rioter trying to break glass in a door had been shot; we saw the stomach-turning image of a thug waving a Confederate flag inside the U.S. Capitol.

That image of the insurrection of Jan. 6 remains emblazoned.

The Confederate battle flag is a remnant and reminder of a terrible history, a symbol of 11 traitorous states that seceded so they could continue to enslave fellow human beings.

We may wish otherwise, but we cannot scrub that past from history. It happened. We must acknowledge it. But we need not celebrate it. In fact, we should not celebrate it.

And we should not celebrate those who served the treason. Don’t pretend that Robert E. Lee or Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson or Jefferson Davis was a hero. Nor should we celebrate their flag.

Here’s why. According to the U.S. Center of Military History, the oath that all Army officers took from about 1830 until 1862 began: “I, (name) appointed a (rank) in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers (sic) whatsoever …”

That’s likely the oath Lee, Jackson and Davis took when they graduated at West Point.

Three days after Virginia voted to secede, Lee, after rejecting President Lincoln’s promotion to command the Union army, resigned from the Army and took up arms against it. Nowhere in that oath do I find words that say it’s OK to put something else, say, the Commonwealth of Virginia, above allegiance to the United States. If there were any possibility that he might someday renounce that oath, he should have never sworn it.

We should remember the past so we can learn from the past. We do not learn from the past by lionizing its wrongdoers, its traitors.

It seems odd to me that nostalgia for the lost cause wasn’t so strong among those who had fought and lost the war as it was for their children and grandchildren. Those who would preserve the monuments to the likes of Lee, Jackson and Davis often ignore that many, perhaps most, Confederate symbols were not put into place right after the Civil War to honor the recent soldiers.

The first wave of statue building began in the 1890s, as white southerners were passing laws to deny rights to Blacks. A second wave came much later, in response to Black Americans who unnerved segregationists by sitting at lunch counters and by registering to vote. Let’s fly the old battle flag to remind “them” of who runs this place.

The Confederate flag flew on a pole beside the South Carolina Capitol from 2000 to 2015. Before that, it flew for 40 years atop the Capitol, according to The State, the newspaper in Columbia. It went up on the Capitol in the early 1960s. It only left the grounds when a white supremacist murdered nine Blacks at Bible study in Charleston.

The Confederate battle flag is used by some as a general symbol of rebellion. I see it in the back of pickup trucks around here or in decals on car windows, and I doubt that Franklin County was ever a hotbed of Confederate sympathy. But to me, it means treason, not honorable rebellion.

The city in which I grew up — Columbia, Missouri — was segregated and hosted three lily-white colleges. The city honored its enslaving history by naming a school the Robert E. Lee Elementary School. Had I attended public schools, that would have been my neighborhood school. The city also recognized that Missouri was one of four enslaving states that didn’t secede. In the middle of town stood the Ulysses S. Grant Elementary School. Now, Lee school has been renamed the Locust Street School. It is an “expressive arts” school, not a neighborhood school. Grant school still stands, as does its name.

Playing with kids who attended Lee school was my first exposure to Robert E. Lee. I learned from them, and later from teachers, that Lee was a hero who put his state above his country. That sounds just as odd to me now as it did then. They never told me that Lee had violated his oath as a U.S. Army officer in order to commit that treason.

In what other country would people celebrate treachery and traitors by waving the flag of the traitors inside the seat of national government? Can you tour a museum to Vidkun Quisling in Norway? Does the flag of Vichy France fly inside the Palace Bourbon, where the National Assembly meets? What would Spaniards say if Catalonian nationalists waved their flag inside the Edificio Carrión in Madrid? Or Germans if Nazis flew the Swastika inside the Reichstag?

It’s crazy to celebrate a regime dedicated to enslaving people and to destroying the United States. Learn from it, don’t honor it.

Bob Neal doubts that many of the Jan. 6 rioters stood out as students of history. He believes schools need to teach history more and better. How better to learn from it? Neal can be reached at turke[email protected]


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