Flag Waving Down South. How Long?: Symbol, Substance, and Confederate Flag

By Lawrence J. Hanks

Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, pp. 13, 16

[Editor's Note:]On February 2, 1988, fourteen black legislators were arrested in Alabama as they symbolically attempted to scale a fence to remove from the dome of the state capitol the Confederate flag which flies there. The resulting misdemeanor convictions are being appealed, but the incident brought into focus renewed efforts to remove symbols of slavery and segregation from public places. In the essays below, various Southerners speak their minds about the meaning and significance of this controversial symbol.

When the Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, it was the end of one long struggle and the beginning of an even longer one. The Voting Rights Act removed the last legal barrier to black voter participation, however, the real goal had not been reached; access to the ballot was only a means to an end--the socio-economic advancement of black Americans.

It had long been theorized that once blacks gained access to the ballot, they would elect other blacks to political office. These newly elected black officials would enact public policies favorable to the black community, and the socioeconomic status of the black community would rise. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the theorists of black political empowerment were no longer hindered from being practitioners. With the Southern Black Belt and the predominantly black urban centers as their focus, and proportional representation as their goal, the black political empowerment theorists were ready to move to a new stage in the development of black political power.

After almost a quarter-century of black political participation without legal racial barriers, there is a consensus amongst those who keep abreast of developments within the black community: Black political empowerment, even at its optimal level, cannot bring blacks to socio-economic parity with whites--it is hard to believe that so many people thought that it would. Despite the fact that black elected officials have almost doubled in the last twelve years, black Americans continue to lag behind whites on all socio-economic indices. Although there are more blacks in Congress than at any other time in history, blacks face deteriorating conditions in comparison to other groups: Half of all black children born in America are born out of wedlock; the black dropout rate is between 30 percent and 50 percent in several metropolitan areas; black infant mortality and the black unemployment rate is double that of whites; the black poverty rate is triple; and blacks account for over 40 percent of the inmates in federal and state prisons. Thus, it appears that something more than black elected officials is necessary for black socio-economic advancement on a large scale.

This assessment does not diminish the contribution of black elected officials. In areas where blacks have gained political power, progress has been made. In many rural Black Belt areas, black elected officials have provided a variety of symbolic and material benefits. These benefits include group pride, a lessening of police brutality, improved access to public officials, more job training, street lights, paved streets, and increased services from the county and the city. Urban areas, in addition to the aforementioned benefits, have


Page 16

been generally successful with strong affirmative action programs for hiring and contracts. In all areas, one can safely say that while blacks have been relatively successful in bringing about public sector benefits, there has been relatively little success at winning benefits from the private sector. Moreover, the theorized transformation of political power into socio-economic power has not been realized.

Now, black Americans are looking for substantive solutions to ubiquitous concrete problems. While blacks who first gained elective offices soon after the passage of the Voting Rights Act represented great symbolic victories, the symbolic euphoria of the late 196OB and early 197OB has given way to the demands for substantive public policy in the late '70B and '80B. It is not enough to have black people in office--these blacks must develop public policies which will make a difference in the lives of black Americans. Given the constraints on black elected officials, and the nature of the capitalist system, it can be reasonably argued that political power is not enough--black socio-economic advancement on a large level will require a concerted effort from the economic and social sectors of our society.

Thus, after over a century of touting political power as the major tool of socio-economic advancement, the theory of black political empowerment has been found wanting. It is within this context that one can understand the challenge facing the NAACP as it attempts to have the flag removed from atop the various state houses.

The flag removal effort is coming at a time when America's black community is looking for concrete answers to concrete problems. The flag removal effort is viewed by most observers, black and white, as a symbolic campaign; in other words, even if the campaign was successful and the flags were removed, blacks as a group would continue to face the same problems. Thus, the use of scarce resources for this campaign is viewed by a large portion of the black community as a less than optimal use of resources.

The NAACP led the legal battles which helped to create a climate for implementing the theory of black political empowerment. Now, black Americans are seeking other ways to reach socioeconomic parity. Although a strong case can be made for the removal of the flag based on symbolism, the NAACP cannot expect to garner widespread black support until a connection can be made between socioeconomic well-being and the flying of the flag.

Black and white Americans waged a vigorous battle to gain the right to vote for black Americans. However, the scarce resources of the enfranchisement movement were not mobilized for the sake of simply voting. Voting was a means to an end--the socio-economic parity of black Americans. Symbolism is not enough in this day of scarce resources. If there is a negative connection between the official governmental display of the Confederate battle flag and the wellbeing of black Americans, it would be in the best interest of the removal effort, and of black people, for the NAACP to explicate this connection. Until this is done, the removal of the Confederate battle flag will simply be another just cause which lacks the public support necessary for a favorable resolution.

Dr. Lawrence J. Hanks chairs the political science department at Tuskegee University.