WASHINGTON — A former Ku Klux Klan member's conviction in a Birmingham church bombing allows Alabama to shed a major link to its racist past. At the same time, neighboring Mississippi continues to flounder in its seditious history.
Last month when a jury found Thomas Blanton Jr., the one-time Ku Klux Klansman, guilty of first-degree murder in the 1963 bombing that killed four black girls, it sent a message: America no longer accepts terrorism against African-Americans as openly as it once did.
The recent Mississippi vote to keep the Confederate emblem in the state flag, however, is notice not only of the deep racial divide that continues to afflict this nation, but also a reminder that some Americans have no problem celebrating people who killed US government troops. The real issue is bigger than black and white; it's more than blue and gray.
Today, everyone denounces the domestic terrorism that men in white hoods employed against people with black skin. Bombings and lynchings are no longer acceptable (which is not to say racist terrorism has disappeared).
But it is acceptable in Mississippi to fly an emblem that is the banner of those domestic terrorists, a badge of white supremacy, and a symbol of slavery. The emblem in the Mississippi flag and other Confederate symbols honors those who used violence against the United States.
Of course, the strong majority of Mississippians who voted for the Confederate emblem and others of like mind don't see it that way. "My great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and I don't consider him to be a traitor," says John Edward Hurley, president of the Confederate Memorial Association in Washington.
Like Mr. Hurley, many of today's Confederate supporters denounce racism, abhor the thought that white supremacists adopt the banner, and quickly say most Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves.
What cannot be denied is that those Confederate soldiers killed US government troops. The Confederacy would have divided the United States in two, destroying the nation as it was then. Is it not reasonable to consider taking up arms against the US a disloyal, if not traitorous and treasonous, act?
Today's Confederate flag-wavers are not traitors, nor did the Confederate soldiers of the day consider themselves guilty of treason. But they did use force in a bloody attempt to split the country between North and South, slave and free. Is that something that should give any patriotic American pride?
Patriotism, unfortunately, was rarely discussed during the recent Mississippi flag battle or during the South Carolina fight last year. This leaves the debate to divide largely along racial lines, as did the Mississippi vote. The 65 to 35 percent margin in favor of the old flag closely reflects the white-black population breakdown. The numbers suggest that white people view the flag as a heritage issue, while blacks view it as a slavery issue.
"Whites thought their history and heritage would be destroyed," says Eugene Bryant, president of the NAACP's state conference. "That's kind of a crazy idea, but some folks believed that."
It also seems crazy that some counties with black majorities of at least 60 percent - including Quitman, Issaquena, and Sharkey - voted for the old emblem. Bryant blames that on low black turnout.
While it makes sense for the NAACP and African-Americans to lead the fight against the Confederate emblem, all who claim to love this land should be at the forefront of that fight as well. Veterans groups such as the American Legion haven't touched the flag controversy. Yet the veterans, as much as anyone, should be outraged over Confederate symbols, including statues, street names, and holidays. The military ancestors of today's troops and veterans were the targets of Confederate fire.
Confederate sympathizers have a point when they argue that their symbols are part of their heritage. They should acknowledge, however, that it is a heritage of disloyalty to the United States. They should not be prevented from privately celebrating that heritage of sedition if they so choose. Decorative flag license plates and other privately financed displays of Confederate symbols are acceptable under the Bill of Rights of the nation the Confederacy sought to tear asunder.
But the public financing of such displays, except in museums or for educational purposes, is offensive to African-Americans and others who want this nation to be all it says it is. Confederate flags and emblems should not fly on public grounds. Statues to rebel soldiers should not be supported with public money nor blot public space. Schools and roadways should not honor Confederate leaders with their names.
"We have this history of shared experiences and different experiences, and these different experiences are the things that keep us apart," said Leslie McLemore, a Jackson, Miss., city council member.
Perhaps a love of America can bring us together. That will be difficult as long as some insist on honoring those who would have torn the country in two.
Joe Davidson does commentaries on National Public Radio's 'Morning Edition.'
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor