What the Confederate flag represents to African-Americans

Race Issues
by Jarvis J. Williams

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2015, at 3:40 pm

In the past week, arsonists have burned to the ground several black churches in the South. Perhaps these fires have nothing to do with race. Yet, these crimes along with the racially motivated murder of nine African-American Christians in Charleston, S.C., draw attention to the racism the Confederate flag represents for many African-Americans.

Photos of accused Charleston killer Dylann Roof surrounded by Confederate flags and his own confession that he committed these crimes against black people because they were black further envisage the racial hatred the flag represents to many African-Americans. As a result, many now ask: Does the flag represent history, heritage, or hatred? Even whites within the Southern Baptist Convention—a predominately white denomination founded in the 1800s in part because of slavery—are wrestling with this question. Russell Moore, a white Southern Baptist leader from Mississippi, has forcefully spoken out against the flag, writing, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot coexist without one setting the other on fire.”          

As an African-American Southern Baptist who was born and raised in a very racist part of eastern Kentucky, I too see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racial hatred and terror. Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, whenever I saw the Confederate flag, I immediately feared for my life as I reflected on the racial hatred that it historically represented. When visiting schools that used the flag as a school symbol at athletic events, my relatives would always take the necessary precautions to protect us, since we usually would be the only African-Americans in attendance. In a community close to ours, the Ku Klux Klan held annual rallies in the 1990s, where they would preach their message of racial hatred and white supremacy while proudly displaying the Confederate flag.

To many African-Americans, the Confederate flag is a symbol of racial terrorism. It represents the battle fought over the enslavement of black people. It is a symbol of resistance to the civil rights of African-Americans. It represents years of lynching, Jim Crow, and black suffering. It served as an emblem of racial hatred of blacks and other ethnic minorities for many hate groups throughout history, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. And most recently, the flag served as a symbol of white supremacy and terrorism for Roof.

The racially motivated murders in Charleston and the burning of black churches in the South suggest to many African-Americans—as well as to a growing number of racially diverse Americans—that the Confederate flag should no longer proudly fly on public property. 

Jarvis J. Williams

Jarvis is associate professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a former WORLD contributor.

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