It's been 142 years since Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses Grant on April 9, 1865, to officially end the American Civil War. Yet, time hasn't softened abrasive feelings about the Confederate flag when it's unfurled in public (and, worse, if "Dixie" is sung at the same time).
To critics, Johnny Reb's stars and bars on display is an insulting, in-your-face reminder of the South's slavery culture and rebellious cessation from the Union. To many sons and daughters and nonresident admirers of the South, however, the flag is a proud commemoration of noble history and remembrance of gallant Southerners who died for their quixotic beliefs.
The flag's mystical power to ignite controversy probably sank Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential ambitions: While campaigning in South Carolina, McCain hemmed and hawed when asked if the Confederate flag should fly over the Statehouse. Later, after polls showed him the way, McCain returned to South Carolina to condemn it as offensive to black Americans. His original indecisiveness was considered weakness.
A new flap over the stars and bars is playing out in Tallahassee, Fla., where pro and con passions are clashing over a museum display. Artist John Sims has hung a Confederate flag in a rope noose from a wooden gallows with the title, "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag."
Confederate loyalists are beside themselves with fury, calling the hanging "offensive" and demanding its removal. The museum wisely refused; the flag is an undeniable part of U.S. history and the display surely is freedom of speech, albeit highly offensive to some.
(A similar storm erupted over an American flag exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum in the 1990s. A few displays involved clear desecration—one flag was stuffed in a toilet, another was a mat that sightseers had to trample to reach a guest book. John McCain, incidentally, showed up for the TV cameras to express his disgust. But the museum persisted with the exhibition.)
Those who vilify and mock the Confederate flag as repugnant are engaging in the same freedom of expression as those who honor and celebrate the flag and the Confederacy's lost cause.
No matter how distasteful, history requires the Confederate experience and its revolting offshoots—such as the birth of the terrorist Ku Klux Klan—and other despicable episodes in America's growth pains to be preserved as part of the DNA of our roots and heritage.
The 16th century philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon showed wisdom in his "Essays of Studies" when he wrote, "Histories make men wise."