Heritage, not hate! Just about every Southerner has seen this familiar slogan plastered on the bumper of a passing car or boldly emblazoned across a tattered T-shirt.
And as the public debate over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina packs up and moves on to other states, the question remains a critical one for all people of good will: Is the flag a symbol of heritage or of hate?
Heritage groups point out that the flag is uniquely Southern and that it represents a time when a distinct new nation was created in the spirit of our American forefathers — only to disappear four years later, bled dry by a brutal war.
Flag opponents counter by arguing that the banner, loved by many in the South, has been abused by hate groups that exist to divide Southerners rather than uniting them.
That’s true, but the fact remains that abuse of the flag is a distortion of its true meaning and original symbolism. And if abuse by hate groups is reason enough to bury the Confederate battle flag in the dark corner of a museum, then our beloved Stars and Stripes must be next, because the American flag has been equally abused by racist groups. Nonetheless, few would call for the national flag to be furled, and the same standard must apply to the Confederate battle flag.
So what is the true meaning of the flag: heritage or hate?
Ironically, the answer may be “none of the above.” The real meaning of the flag is honor.
The Confederate battle flag is not a national flag: It was designed by soldiers, for soldiers on the field of battle. The flag incorporated the Cross of St. Andrew, a Celtic Christian symbol, along with stars and colors used in the national flag. The banner demonstrated the influence of Christianity among the troops and served as a rallying point for Confederate soldiers scattered over dusty, smoke-filled battlefields across the South.
As the soldiers’ flag, the banner represents neither a generic notion of Southern heritage nor an attitude of racial animosity. In fact, few North Carolinians even owned slaves or thought about much more than making their small family farms yield enough food to sustain the family for another year, and 5,000 to 10,000 black soldiers fought alongside their fellow North Carolinians during the four-year conflict.
What the flag does represent is the honor of all who willingly made a sacrifice for their state and nation that few today could even imagine, much less emulate. The flag represents men past their youth, 40-year-old privates, who said goodbye to their wives, children and farms, knowing they might never see home again. And the flag represents young boys, some only in their midteens, who marched north knowing their brothers had already fallen victim to disease and enemy fire.
The blood-stained banner helps us remember the more than 40,000 North Carolinians — and countless others across Dixie — who made the ultimate sacrifice, many of them still buried in long-forgotten, unmarked graves.
No one would dare snatch the American flag from the hands of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who answered the call of duty earlier this century, offering their service and their lives in the trenches across Europe, on islands in the Pacific, and in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Likewise, Southerners, who lost nearly an entire generation of men to war, must not tear from their ancestors’ grasp a symbol of their honor.
The answer to the “heritage or hate” question is that the Confederate battle flag represents neither our generic cultural heritage nor the hatred of bitter and foolish men. It is not about the legality of secession or the motives of the leaders who took that agonizing step.
It is nothing less than a symbol of honor. And in the long run, the issue may be not only whether we recognize our Confederate veterans’ honor, but whether we demonstrate any ourselves.
[Charles Hawks is the commander of the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.]