Kansas’ Confederate flag fliers say, ‘Honk if you love hate’

September 20, 2020 4:00 am

A truck flying the American and Confederate flags at Emporia, Kansas, in 2019. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

There’s a guy in town who drives around with a Confederate battle flag fluttering from the back of his pickup. Here’s what I’d like to tell him: Congratulations. Just when I thought things can’t get any worse, you’ve found a way to show me what worse looks like.

You drive from one end of town to the other, inflicting your flapping hate on everyone. You make me fear that this nation will indeed perish from the earth — just as did that nation whose flag you seem to love so much.

Every time I see that flag fluttering over the bed of your white half-ton, I wonder to myself what kind of statement you’re trying to make.

Do you know you’re in Kansas, which was never part of the Confederacy, but which was born in fire as a free state on the very eve of the Civil War? Do you know that the flag has become a symbol for hate groups, from white supremacists to neo-Nazis? That the Confederate flag is still, 155 years after the Civil War, representative of a nation that fought to keep the enslavement of Black people as a founding principle? Do you understand that now, in 2020, flying that flag can reasonably be taken as an attempt to instill terror in people of color — just as waving a swastika in front of a synagogue would be?

Let’s talk for a moment about the ingrained bigotry in the history of American popular culture. From D.W. Griffith’s black-and-white blockbuster “Birth of a Nation” (spoiler: the “nation” is the Ku Klux Klan) in 1915 to Victor Fleming’s “Gone with the Wind” (unironically in color) to the seven seasons, beginning in 1979, of “The Dukes of Hazzard” (the real star of the show was that 1969 Dodge Charger), the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia has burned itself into American white consciousness.

I know it was burned into mine.

I remember, as a kid, sitting in a plush red chair at the local Fox Theater and watching “Gone with the Wind.” I acutely remember the scene when the camera pulls back and cranes up to slowly reveal the hundreds of injured soldiers following the Battle of Atlanta, to end from the point of view of a tattered rebel flag fluttering above.

From that moment, at least in my youth, I came to associate the Confederate flag with some misty-eyed nostalgia, tangled up with a sense of rebellion and a feeling that came curiously close to patriotism. These feelings were driven home over and over, in movies and books and television and popular entertainment. When my father loaded me and my brother in the family car and drove us from Kansas to Six Flags Over Texas, one of those titled flags of the amusement park was the Confederate battle flag.

It was only when I grew older and read more deeply that I realized the flag was an artifact of a time that was to be studied, but not celebrated.

It was Mark Twain who did the most to convince me.

You see, Twain blamed the chivalric novels of Walter Scott for encouraging a cultural mindset in the South that led to the Civil War. No, the author of “Ivanhoe” did not advocate for slavery; he was dead nearly 30 years by the time Fort Sumter was fired upon. But Twain believed Sir Walter’s chauvinistic romances had poisoned antebellum culture and kept southerners from progressing beyond slavery.

Twain himself was part of a Confederate militia in Missouri, at least for a few weeks, but soon wisely lit out for Nevada Territory. Twenty-some years later, in “Life on the Mississippi,” Twain made his case against Scott, who celebrated a time of chivalry that never was and made southerners believe they were descendants of a noble and aristocratic tradition.

“Then comes Sir Walter Scott with this enchantments,” Twain writes, “and by his single might checks the wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the silliness and emptiness, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.”

This toxic undercurrent has had a surprising tenacity.

Walter Scott’s shams morphed into the hit books and movies of the first half of the 20th century and the television shows of the last half. In the 21st century, these ideas fueled a political movement that celebrates an America that never was and denies that systemic racism exists.

I’ve written a number of novels, and some of them have been set in Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War. And while I have included Confederates in these historical novels, I have avoided celebrating the sham of the “Lost Cause.” One of my novels is even told from the point of view of Confederate guerilla William Clarke Quantrill — who burned Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863 — but he is a sociopath and the story unfolds as a fevered dream on his deathbed. This did not prevent the Lawrence Journal-World from railing, in an editorial, against the novel. Fair enough. I would have expected no less from the paper of record from Lawrence, where a hatred of Quantrill is regarded as a civic duty.

Look, my unknown pickup driver, there are places where the Confederate flag might still be displayed, but it all depends on context. It is hard to imagine a Civil War reenactment without some flag that represents the Confederacy, for example, or in a historically accurate movie like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” released in 2012. Kevin Willmott, a filmmaker from Lawrence, used it brilliantly in 2004 in “CSA,” a cutting mockumentary which imagines what life would be like today if the Confederacy won the Civil War. Museums? Sure. History books? Yes.

Detail of John Steuart Curry mural “Tragic Prelude” at the state Capitol, Topeka. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

But the time for a social display of the flag is over.

This change has been afoot for some time, but it crystallized in 2017, when groups of white nationalists converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of Confederate monuments. One of those white nationalists drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer.

Willmott, a professor of film at the University of Kansas, won an Oscar for co-writing 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” with director Spike Lee and others. The film, a comedy crime drama set in the 1970s about a black detective who infiltrates the Klan, has a mostly light touch until the ending: the disturbing and real footage of a 2010 Dodge Challenger plowing into the crowd at Charlottesville, killing Heyer and wounding 28 others.

Do you have the legal right to fly your flag? Absolutely. The Constitution makes no judgments as to the content of free speech. That’s why, as awful as the concept is, the Supreme Court in 2011 ruled the Westboro Baptist Church (Kansas’ own) had a Constitutional right to continue to protest at funerals of fallen service members and say the most disgusting things about them you can imagine. There are some limits on speech, of course; the Constitution offers no protection for obscenity, child pornography, fraud, incitement to violence, and a few other categories. But outrageous insensitivity is not among them.

In 2020, flying the Confederate flag isn’t bold, or rebellious, or a nod to history. It just shows the world that you’ve been seduced by hateful dreams and phantoms, that you long for decayed and degraded symptoms of government, that you’ve embraced the emptiness and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless society.

It’s time to ditch that hateful flag.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.