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Rally Around The Flag by Brad Lena

The mainstream black civil rights organizations, the NAACP in particular, are offended by the inclusion of the Confederate Battle Flag in any part of a government flag or icon. This flag, seen as a symbol of the defense of the institution of slavery, is deemed insulting and grossly inappropriate. This is a volatile and emotional issue. Passions are inflamed, boycotts are organized, lawsuits are threatened, conventions are cancelled and protests planned. Are Black Americans, in 2002, really threatened by the historical symbolism of this flag? A number of European countries, all without Nazi flags or symbols are experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Clearly, what flag is flying doesn't mean much when it comes to bigotry and hatred. Considering the magnitude of non-symbolic challenges facing the black community in 2002 is this issue worth the expenditure of black political, economic and social capital?

To put flags in perspective, let's take a quick look at flags and the experience of black people in North America. The British Union Jack came so did slavery, The Union Jack left and slavery remained. The American Star and Stripes came and slavery remained. The Confederate Stars and Bars came and slavery remained. The Stars and Bars left and slavery ended. The American Stars and Stripes came back and with it came Jim Crow, discrimination, segregation, repression, exploitation and the denial of civil rights. Why do the mainstream civil rights organization think the problem is with a flag? Do not the Stars and Stripes, with the prior and post Civil War governmental betrayal of its ideals and promises, give offense as well? If America adopted a new flag, how would that improve the social, economic and political circumstance of Black Americans? If Confederate Battle Flags were suddenly banned from earth, would the social, economic and political circumstance of Black Americans improve?

Why is there this focus on the Confederate Battle Flag? Well, for one thing it is an easy victory. It's like boxing. When the aging champ needs a quick knockout, you get some punch drunk bum in the ring, land a few easy hits and it's all over. It's a low-risk strategy and adds another victory to the record of the champ. Translated into politics, this action against the flag neither threatens nor challenges the current black infrastructure of power and influence regarding party affiliation, labor or educational positions, social or family issues. The black power status quo is upheld and unquestioned while the pathetic straw man of the Confederate Battle Flag is pilloried. Nice work if you can get it. It generates good press, good sound bites and the flag can't be defended. It risks nothing. Unfortunately, it also changes nothing. Real change means real change. Those that hold power may lose power. Those that have influence may lose their influence. Those that reap economic benefits may no longer reap economic benefits. Therefore, those who have something to lose with "change" can be guaranteed to resist it, at least initially. If one ponders organizations that survive and thrive over time, you find that they renew themselves through innovation in response to changing opportunities or circumstance. Organizations that fail to survive are unwilling or unable to adapt. Often they just shuffle the cards hoping that the next hand dealt will be better. The flag issue sounds suspiciously like card shuffling.

Undoubtedly, many would disagree saying that the mainstream civil rights organizations continue to play a vital and needed role in guiding and articulating issues pertaining to the black agenda. Julian Bond recently said as much in his recent letter to The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps, but history may be passing them by as the circumstance of Black Americans, which precipitated the emergence of these organizations has changed, some for the better, some for the worse. All institutions, over time, become moribund and self-serving. Why should the mainstream civil rights organizations be exempt? Does this mean they should be disbanded? Absolutely not, perhaps just no longer deferred to as the "authentic" voice for the black agenda. Others would rightfully point out that if it weren't for the work of these organizations black access to achievement would have been stunted or maybe denied. I would concur, but the sacrifices of past generations have little resonance with the present one as they take current circumstances for granted. It may not be fair but it's the truth. As other avenues of opportunity open up, dynamic and innovative people step forward to seize the opportunity, often without a backward glance as the demands of the struggle doesn't leave much time for gratitude. That comes later, if they succeed. There has been too much achievement in the black community for it to be channeled exclusively through these organizations. Black excellence, dammed up for too long, is breaking through in every area of human achievement. This is not to say that one can now let things develop of their own accord. On the contrary, it is these very achievements that make the current threats to the black community even more pernicious and terrible. These threats, moral, social, educational and economic have nothing to do with the Confederate Battle Flag. In case it needs mentioning, these threats came into being under the Stars and Stripes.

In the seeking to discover the optimum filament for the light bulb, Thomas Edison said he would try cheesecloth if he thought it might work. This comment reveals Edison to be relentless in the pursuit of a solution. His statement, purely symbolic, signifies what is now called an "outside the box" approach to problem solving. In confronting the challenges facing the black community are the mainstream civil rights organizations demonstrating an "outside the box" approach to the issues? Do they recognize that the perspective of the achievement class, regardless of color, is increasingly global? Should there not be startlingly dynamic and innovative approaches to education and social issues, political influence and economic initiatives in pursuit of greater black participation in the evolving world of the 21st Century?

I have no crystal ball, but I'm willing to bet that the future of Black Americans in the 21st Century doesn't have much to do with a flag from the 19th.

Brad Lena is a regular contributor to Mr. Lena is based in Asheville, NC and can be reached at

Brad Lena

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

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