Living With The Confederate Flag In Our Gettysburg Neighborhood

In commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg July 4th weekend, Confederate battle flags will once again no doubt be flying everywhere around town. Two years ago, I wrote a piece arguing that until we got the history right, those flags on national park property should be banned, uprooted, and thrown out.

Two years ago, I had one neighbor on our block who flew a Confederate flag from their porch.

A month ago, there were three neighbors, one with two flags.

I’ve always thought this was simply a matter of free speech. They have every right to fly those flags from their private property, as opposed to displays on state and federal property. I would not favor legislation to deny their negative right of free speech. Free speech protected under the First Amendment is called a negative right not because it is bad, but because it negates the power of the state to take away our rights. Negative rights are fundamental to democracy and human rights.

But as a black man living in Gettysburg for going on 14 years now, I’ve become increasingly impatient with the just-plain-wrong revisionist history used by those who fly that flag, whether from their front porch, their license plate, or state property in South Carolina.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, John E. Price, and others have articulated the public discourse around the exercise of positive rights so well over the last few days.

My white neighbor, David Seitz, and I discussed a strategy that goes one step further and calls people to be responsive and responsible citizens without infringing on anyone’s negative rights:

Though the First Amendment guarantees U.S. citizens the freedom of speech, nothing in the Constitution guarantees the right to be heard. Americans tend to conflate the two, but they are not necessarily one and the same. If a politician says something offensive on television, you can change the channel. If a pundit writes something vile in a blog, you can call him or her out in the comments section, or simply close the tab. If the KKK holds a public rally in your town square, you can organize a counter-march or spend the day elsewhere. In short, many instances of hateful ‘free speech’ are relatively avoidable, fallible, ephemeral, or fleeting.

via Flickr

Unfortunately, it is difficult to ignore or challenge hate speech that comes in the form of a publicly placed material object. As anyone who has raised a Confederate flag on their property understands, material objects can be excellent vessels for transmitting sustained messages within a given space. The fundamental power of such objects lies in the fact that — outside of acts of vandalism — their intimidating and divisive messages cannot be outright suppressed. Our neighbors’ Confederate flags entail a never-ending monologue of sorts — an asymmetrical, one-way, ‘sender-receiver’ form of communication in which our neighbors get to speak and be heard every time we pass their houses. It is a 24/7 speech act.

We aren’t proposing that our neighbors’ rights to speak through their flags be curtailed. We are proposing a means by which the rest of the community can speak back 24/7: by defining what those flags mean.
via Flickr

Imagine if a community decided to pass a town ordinance that stated Confederate flags should be understood as supporting a heritage that any grade school student could uncover in a day’s worth of research. The ordinance would be non-binding — it wouldn’t force anyone to take down their flag. We already have ordinances regulating signs that limit their type and language; what we’re proposing wouldn’t even go that far. It would simply be a statement, decided upon through a democratic process, that this community — or any community — has done its research, understands the importance of symbols representing racism, and that support for slavery is absolutely not endorsed through the flag’s display.

Our Confederate flag flying neighbors may argue that’s not what those flags represent. And they’d be welcome to make their case in a democratic process. But we’re convinced their argument doesn’t hold up against past history and present reality. As Scott Hartwig, recently retired Supervisory Historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, told me a few years ago, anyone who does good research in what white southerners were saying in the 1860s will come away with one inescapable conclusion: the central motivation why the South seceded and fought a bloody war was to maintain racial slavery.

Confederate flags don’t represent a spirit of rebellious American individualism standing against overwhelming power of a centralized government. They don’t represent a struggle for states’ rights — the only states’ rights at risk were those of northern states to protect fugitive slaves against southern states’ control of the federal government. When the South lost control of the federal government, and could no longer limit the rights of northern states, they committed treason and seceded so they could keep black women, men, and children as slaves. That’s what those flags stand for. Not the recognition of one’s ancestors (one might ask why that particular ancestor gets such reverence). Not the bravery or comradery of soldiers. Not individualism, American ideals, or independence. Racist slavery, exploitation, and treason, yes. Any other argument for those flags is simply born of ignorance.

So Gettysburg, let’s speak back and maybe end the war that Union soldiers died here for 152 years ago this July.

Scott Hancock is an associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College.

David Seitz is an assistant professor of Communication at Penn State Mont Alto.

*This piece was originally written by faculty as part of the Prof. Says series. The views that are a part of this series are not intended to reflect Gettysburg College’s views as an institution of higher learning, but rather serve as a forum for discussion and intellectual debate.

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