Welcome to Crackertown (formerly Richmond, Virginia)!
Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin each have posts up this beautiful Sunday on the Virginia Flaggers’ project to put up a big Confederate Battle Flag on I-95, south of Richmond. Both essays are worth your time, and question whether the Flaggers have over-reached in this latest effort. Contra Brooks and Kevin, though, I think the Virginia Flaggers are doing exactly the opposite, making a strategic withdrawal into a well-trodden, clichéd effort that effectively cedes their self-promoted role as leaders in the Confederate Heritage™ movement. Going forward, there will be little reason to view the Virginia Flaggers as much different from any other Confederate heritage group, either in their tactics or their ability to influence broader public opinion.
The I-95 flag project is tacit acknowledgement that the Virginia Flaggers’ two central causes, the Confederate Memorial Chapel in Richmond and the display of flags on city-owned property in Lexington, are not going to have favorable resolutions in the foreseeable future. In Lexington, there were two avenues of challenge, (1) litigation in federal court and (2) electing a new city administration more amenable to the Flaggers’ wishes. As of now, though, the lawsuit is effectively on life support, having been rejected by both district and appeals courts, and back in November the mayor of Lexington was re-elected with a larger share of the vote than she got before. The lease on the chapel comes up for renewal in 2015, but unless I badly misread human nature, the museum administrators who’ve been putting up with years of nasty e-mails, ridicule and name-calling are not going to be inclined to be generous when it’s time to re-negotiate a lease where (as in 2010) they hold all the cards. People just don’t usually react that way.
(Confederate Heritage folks are very proud of their defiance and steadfast resolution in the face of adversity, but never seem to realize that trait exists in others, including those who disagree with them. It was true in 1861 and it’s true today.)
The I-95 project isn’t over-reach, but quite the opposite — it’s grabbing the low-hanging fruit. It’s confirmation that, for all their efforts to promote themselves as being in the vanguard of “restoring the honor” of Confederate veterans, the Virginia Flaggers are no more innovative or successful than a half-dozen SCV camps that have completed (or are working on) similar highway flag projects, from Florida to Texas. The I-95 project doesn’t challenge any institutional or powerful interests. It doesn’t require a successful challenge to authority or overturning any rule or regulation or city ordinance, and doesn’t require winning widespread public support. It doesn’t require voting an elected official out of office, or getting a museum board to fire a director you don’t like. You don’t have to file a lawsuit. There are no great legal, administrative or public opinion obstacles to be overcome if your goal is limited to putting up a big-ass flag on private property — even in Lexington. The I-95 project just requires a relatively small amount of money and some willing supporters, both of which are easily obtained. It’s an easy and highly-visible accomplishment that, among the Flaggers’ supporters, will divert attention away from the resources invested in two high-profile disputes that have consumed thousands of volunteer hours and dollars, and have precious little to show for it – nor are ever likely to.
Brooks is exactly right when he writes that the Virginia Flaggers’
choice of symbol and location leaves much to be desired, precisely because the flag is presented without context. . . . No Flaggers will be out by the interstate to explain the message they are sending or to converse with folks. It has nothing to do with changing hearts and minds. It simply reinforces division. It shuts down discourse in favor of defiant confrontation.
Just so. A giant, automobile-dealership-style Confederate Battle Flag out on the freeway does nothing to “educate” the public about the honor of the Confederate veteran, or any of the other things the Flaggers frequently claim their activities do, one-on-one with the public. The I-95 flag will not change the way visitors to Richmond view that emblem, or encourage people who are now indifferent or hostile to the Flaggers’ view of history to become more sympathetic to it. It will simply reinforce what people already believe about that symbol.
This is not about education or encouraging a dialogue about history; it is not about what Susan Hathaway once referred to as “civil discourse and education.” In this project, the Flaggers have tossed aside such high-minded goals in favor of simply marking their territory, as surely as a dog pissing on the curb. Of all the historic flags associated with the Confederacy and Virginia (e.g., that of the Commonwealth, or the First National), the Virginia Flaggers have chosen the one they know to carry the most ugly historical baggage, the one irrevocably associated over the last three generations with segregation, bigotry, and white nationalism. There are a lot more folks alive today who remember this, than remember this. The I-95 flag in Richmond carries the same meaning and intent that all the other highway flags do – you’re entering unreconstructed territory. For some, that will be a point of Southron Pride. For many others, it will have a much more concrete meaning.
Welcome to Crackertown.