Symbols of power, loyalty, and group identity stir strong emotions - and often opposite emotions in different people. Case in point: the Confederate flags and monuments common in America's South.
The increased political clout and social assertiveness of Southern blacks inevitably set the stage for today's challenges to those symbols of a bygone South. For African-Americans, they recall a past of slavery and degradation. For many white Southerners, they evoke glory and heroism.
One point of contention is the Confederate battle flag that flies over the state capitol in Charleston, S.C. Gov. David Beasley, a Republican, tried last November to have the flag removed after repeated complaints from black South Carolinians. But he met strong opposition in the state legislature.
Elsewhere, Confederate statues and memorials have come under fire from offended black citizens. The Virginia legislature is poised to remove the state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," with its antebellum imagery.
Two things bear saying about all this. First, flying a flag from the state house, or other such direct display, gives a symbol official approval. When a sizable part of the citizenry objects, government must listen. Governor Beasley had it right when he asked that the flag be taken down "to teach our children that we can live together."
He recognized that the Confederate banner had all too often been appropriated by racist hate groups.
Second, the experience of secession and Civil War remains embedded in the national consciousness. Slavery was the precipitating cause of that American tragedy. How could the South have mustered such valor in defense of what now seems a morally indefensible cause? Why did it take so long for the nation to come to terms with the issues of equality set in motion by the war? Such questions should spring to mind every time we see one of those Confederate memorials - or one of the countless Civil War statues on town squares in the North.
The answers have a lot to do with the American character. Beyond that, they force us to lower the flag on the persistent human tendency to judge fellow men and women by skin color, by outward appearance - the most pernicious use of symbolism there is.