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Black History and the Confederate Flag

Peter Comstock
Posted 2/16/24

E lizabeth Eckford endured the racial epithets of an angry mob as, books in arms, she strode toward the front door of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.  

“Lynch her! Lynch …

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Black History and the Confederate Flag


Elizabeth Eckford endured the racial epithets of an angry mob as, books in arms, she strode toward the front door of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. 

“Lynch her! Lynch her!” a neatly dressed coed screamed in her face, as students elsewhere took turns beating a black dummy hanging from the limb of a tree.  This all played out before the eyes of America on the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards while, in my own living room, Stu and I awaited our turn for “The Restless Gun”, at 8:00.

My civics class at lily-white Midland Park High in New Jersey, did little to help me understand the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.  Nothing about how the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, had been ignored by a huge swath of the country for over 100 years since its ratification—ignored until the courage of a people forced new awareness upon a sleeping nation. 

Popping up here and there in that Little Rock mob as a symbol of defiance to school integration was the battle flag of the Confederacy, whose lurid colors would beguile me throughout my young adult years—its appearance on the dormitory walls at my college in Seattle, or its presence on the car roof of the “General Lee” in “The Dukes of Hazard,” a mindless trope of good ol’ Southern boys breaking the law—until I finally understood the true meaning of that flag when a plug of holiday traffic forced me off the four-lane and into the heart of rural South Carolina.

Traveling the rough roads east of the Savannah River had a way of bridging the washouts in my Civil War history.  Among the plantations of yellow pine and cotton fields you can glide past the likes of Tarboro and Furman, predominately black communities.  I saw clusters of “colored folk” (a term still used by some) gabbing on a Saturday morning outside the Piggly Wiggly in Hampton. 

That scene would be repeated in town after town on our route leading me to the revelation:  here were entire communities of once enslaved people who—when the Civil War ended—simply remained in place near their former masters.  

Hampton, South Carolina, got its name from Robert E. Lee’s dashing cavalry commander, Wade Hampton III. Hailing from the entitled planter class, all of his ill-begotten privileges would be in jeopardy if emancipation became the law of the land.  And in fact, at his own unit’s surrender of their battle flag, Hampton nearly came to blows with the attending Union general.  

Following the War, Radical Reconstruction sought to enforce the spirit of the Constitutional Amendments ensuring civil rights for all.  Black communities throughout the South began to thrive, electing officials at the local, state and federal levels—until a combination of forces underpinned by white intimidation caused the fruits of Reconstruction to recede. 

For his central role in rebuffing human rights, Wade Hampton was hailed as “Savior of the South.”

I entered the Hampton County Courthouse through a modern metal detector where the guard, a burly and affable black woman, waved me forth to study the historical displays. I prowled one hallway after another to the puzzlement of the busy clerks until, rounding a corner, I confronted an enormous white guard, skin-headed and threatening, telling me to move on. As I worked my way back to the checkpoint, I met the lady guard on break outside the restroom. We paused together for a moment beneath a portrait of Wade Hampton.  

“Thanks for letting me in,” I said. “You know this guy was not very nice to you all.”  

“Well, that’s nothing new,” she said with a shrug.

In fact, many of her ancestors must have blanched in terror at the atrocities carried out by the male paramilitaries. Prominent among them were the Red Shirts—menacing white supremacists not unlike our present-day Proud Boys—who used violence and intimidation throughout South Carolina to suppress the black vote during Hampton’s gubernatorial election.  An estimated 150 African Americans were murdered during that campaign alone.

W. E. B. Du Bois encapsulated it best: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”  

Equally unsettling was the legacy of denialism set into motion in 1866 by the Lost Cause: A New History of the War of the Confederates in which Edward Pollard ignored the overwhelming experience of the slaves subjected to brutal work, whippings, family separation,  and sexual abuse, among other outrages. 

Instead, he declared:  “We shall not enter upon the discussion of the moral question of slavery….which was really the mildest in the world; which…protected the negro in life and limb…and made him altogether the most striking type in the world of cheerfulness and contentment.”

The lie of the Lost Cause blazed a pernicious trail of abuses leading to the portrayal of African Americans as sex-crazed animals in “The Birth of a Nation” and to the whitewashing of history in school textbooks which continues in parts to this day.  

And, of course, to generation upon generation of Jim Crow laws with their nullification of “forty acres and a mule”, and “Don’t you dare make eye contact with a white woman or you’ll find yourself….”  Take your pick—of mutilation, immolation, or lynching.

“Ignorance enslaves us all,” Jonathan Greenblatt, Director of the Anti-Defamation League declared recently.  The resurgence of the Confederate flag in political campaigns—or in the attack on our nation’s Capitol—might  be seen as a mere expression of power; but that ignores the fact it fundamentally was the banner for a catastrophic insurrection seeking to thwart the ambition and dreams of an entire race. Its use in Selma, Montgomery and Charlottesville has forever cemented its place in American history as a symbol of intolerance, violence and hate; and like the Nazi swastika, the Confederate flag has elicited widespread revulsion in American society. 

Elizabeth Eckford could never entirely dismiss the horror she experienced as a fifteen-year-old in Little Rock in 1957. Though she served in the military and had successful careers in teaching and social work after graduating from Central High, she suffered from post traumatic stress, making two attempts on her life. Elizabeth was just one of untold thousands—millions—traumatized in their communities, even to this day, by the cruel acts of white supremacy and ignorance.


Peter Comstock lives and farms on his family’s 160-year-old homestead in Glen Spey.


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