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Jubilee hopes

Print edition : Feb 05, 2000 T+T-

Protests against the Confederate flag in South Carolina, which to many is a symbol of white supremacy, bring to the fore issues of racial justice and equality in the United States.


ON January 17, 2000, almost 50,000 people, mainly African Americans, but also sizable numbers of whites and others, gathered before the South CarolinaStatehouse for a rally to honour and enliven the ideals of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The crowd came from far and wide, mainly organised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and various African American, civil rights and religious organisations. People of all ages carried signs that read "Your Heritage is My Slavery", a rebuke to the Confederate flag that flies atop the statehouse. On January 1, the NAACP started an economic boycott of South Carolina to force the government to lower the flag.

"We are determined to bring that flag down," said Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, an organisation founded in 1909 to fight racial discrimination in the United States. The flag, he noted, "Represents one of the most reprehensible aspects of American history not only for people of African ancestry but for people from every background who know and understand the destructive horrors created by slavery in this country". The NAACP is known for a restrained approach towards social justice, but over the p ast two years it has been forceful and has been taking to the streets. To some extent this has to do with the virulent backlash against people of African ancestry.

CURRENTLY, two million people languish in U.S. jails, of whom two-thirds are African Americans and Latinos and almost all are from the working class. Cases of police brutality against African Americans offer an indication of the everyday danger of being a black in the U.S. Amadou Diallo was shot by the New York police 41 times as he stood unarmed in his home. The Riverside, California, police shot Tyisha Miller as she sat in her car. Aquan Salomon, 14, was shot in the back by a Hartford police officer a s he stood with his hands raised. Enduring black economic disenfranchisement and intensified police misconduct towards blacks do not sit well with most Americans.

At the same time, many white Americans feel that the federal government should not do anything to transform what is widely regarded as a racist social structure. When Representative John Conyers Jr. asked for $8 million to fund a commission to study the feasibility of paying reparations to African Americans for slavery, he was not given time of day (he has submitted the bill each year since 1989). The German government compensated Jewish families for the Holocaust and corporations are now paying for for ced labour extracted during the Second World War. The U.S. government settled money on Japanese Americans who lost their wealth when they were interned in concentration camps during the 1940s.

Chattel slavery enabled the U.S. to gain from generations of African Americans, although they and their descendents will not see the gains from that labour. In the 1870s, the federal government promised 40 acres (16 hectares) and a mule to each freed sla ve. But that promise, like many others, was not honoured. President Bill Clinton offered a mute apology last year for the institution of slavery. In 1997, he ensured that African American survivors of the infamous Tuskegee Experiment received $10 million for the syphilis experiments they endured at the hands of the Public Health Service in the 1930s.

Most of the advances gained for African Americans have come as a result of their own struggles. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Parting the Waters, historian Taylor Branch documents the tireless striving of the African American people against a recalcitrant federal government. The fights to win freedom in the 1960s elevated Martin Luther King Jr. to virtual sainthood, this even more after his assassination by a white supremacist in 1968.

The fight to honour King's birthday is a symbolic one. South Carolina is the only State that refuses to declare a holiday on that day. Around the time of the struggle, the federal government approved the erection of a monument to King in Washington, D.C. , between the famous memorials to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. It will be the first such monument for an individual who was not a President.

Leslie Dunbar of the National Urban League told this writer that African Americans expected the year 2000 to bring some major changes. "It's 'Jubilee Time'," she noted, a reference to the millenarian idea within the African American tradition that on the 'Day of Jubilo' wrongs will be set right, not in some heavenly paradise but on the earth. Most celebrations of the millennium in the U.S. looked back nostalgically at the past and looked hopefully towards the future. The protests in South Carolina remin ded the nation that the past is not something that can be easily dismissed: the flag is a symbol of different heritages and of what equality should look like in the future. Almost two-thirds of the population of South Carolina indicated to pollsters that they would like to see the flag removed. Mark Toney, executive director of the Centre for Third World Organising, told this writer that for African Americans the idea of 'Jubilee Time' gave a sense of hope that the symbols of slavery must be removed and justice must reign.

As a monument to Martin Luther King will rise in Washington, D.C., the Confederate flag will continue to fly in South Carolina. The flag was adopted by the southern States in 1861 as they began their secession from the Union and inaugurated the Civil War (1862-1865). The last rebel flag was lowered in Liverpool, England, on November 6, 1865 when the Confederate navy (Shenandoah) surrendered to the Union. In 1962, as the U.S. was in the midst of a torrential fight over civil rights, white supremacists fo ught for and won the right to raise the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse. A hundred years after the start of the Civil War, which was principally over the question of chattel slavery, a segment of the white population that lost the war refused to adm it defeat.

A week before the NAACP protest, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, members of the Republican Party and several white supremacist organisations held the Southern Heritage Celebration 2000 on behalf of the flag. Six thousand people gathered to hear Rep resentative Harry Cato intone that the flag "is now, it always has been, and it always will be a symbol of freedom". Senator Arthur Ravenel called the NAACP the "National Association for Retarded People" and the Commander in Chief of the Sons of the Conf ederate Veterans told the crowd to "stand up to the NAACP". Ravenel later apologised to "the retarded folks of the world for equating them with the NAACP".

On January 21, David Duke, a former leader of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, formed the National Organisation for European American Rights. "I guarantee there are many European Americans who are refugees in our own cities," Duke told a news conferen ce where he lashed out at African Americans, Latinos, Jews and homosexuals. "We like our values. We like our culture. We want to preserve it," he said.

Duke's new organisation argues - as it was argued at the rally - that whites feel powerless today, not because of the power of multinational corporations, but because of the bias towards minorities. They speak of their 'heritage' and of 'state's rights', but to many African Americans these are code words for the continuation of the traditions of slavery. Barbara Phillip Sullivan, Professor of Law at the University of Mississipi, says that the flag is "hate speech, because its use in the South was intend ed to convey the ideology of white supremacy and the inhumanity and subordination of African Americans".

THE flag issue has become a touchstone for the campaign for the U.S. presidential election later this year. President Clinton said that the flag was raised atop the Capitol in 1962 by white supremacists as a "gesture of defiance". Vice-President Al Gore asked for the flag to be lowered. The Republicans, however, spoke for "white rights". Senator John McCain (Arizona) noted that "personally I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage. I have ancestors who have fought for the Confederacy, none of whom o wned slaves. I believe they fought honourably." Laura Bush, wife of Texas Governor George W. Bush, the frontrunner for the Republican Party ticket for the presidency, said that the flag "is not a symbol of racism. I grew up in South Texas. It's just a ti me in our history that we can't erase."

Of course, those who want the flag to be removed want to remember history from the standpoint of the oppressed. This is the nub of the issue. Local politicians are left with an onerous task. David Beasley, the previous Governer of South Carolina, vowed t o remove the flag in November 1996 (this he did after he was elected on a pro-flag position). He was voted out of office. The present Governor, Jim Hodges, said that he wanted the flag to be moved to a place "of historical significance on the Statehouse grounds", to please all sides. However, no one is happy.

The year 2000 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of two anti-racist rebels, one white (John Brown) and one black (Nat Turner). The struggles of the NAACP against the Confederate flag are an apt start to this jubilee year, this celebration of the bi rth of two well-regarded Americans.

Vijay Prashad is Assistant Professor, International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.