Boston College Expert: Confederate Flag; South Carolina Shootings
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Heather Cox Richardson
Professor of History
Heather Cox Richardson is an expert in nineteenth-century America, specializing in politics and economics. She is the author of five books that have explored the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the American West, and stretched from the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln to that of Theodore Roosevelt. She is also the founder and co-editor of the web magazine We’re History. Her books The Death of Reconstruction, Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre, and West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War were all selections of the History Book Club; West from Appomattox and To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party were also Editor’s Choice selections of the New York Times Book Review. She is also the author of The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War. Richardson has appeared on C-SPAN, was the subject of a US News & World Report Q&A, is a regular contributor to Salon, and has contributed to Bloomberg, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post among other media entities. Her blog series “Richardson’s Rules of Order” won a Cliopatria Award.
“The battle over the flag is certainly about racism, but what Americans tend to miss nowadays is the fact that racism and the hatred of an active government go hand in hand America,” says History Professor Heather Cox Richardson, an expert in nineteenth-century America who specializes in politics and economics. “We’re at a tipping point where Americans are looking at that Confederate flag and what it stands for and saying, ‘We will no longer support the idea of a government that works only for a very few wealthy, white Americans.'”
Richardson says the hatred of an activist government aimed at helping all began immediately after the Civil War, when white southerners insisted—inaccurately-- that government activism used white tax dollars only to help ex-slaves. That argument resurfaced during desegregation in the 1950s and the 1960s, and led to the new rise of the Confederate battle flag.
“This has been the driving force in American politics since at least the 1980s,” says Richardson. “The idea that a government that helps all of its citizens is somehow redistributing wealth from taxpayers to the undeserving – that ideology at this point no longer serves the vast majority of Americans.
“Taking down this Confederate battle flag is in a sense the moment in which Americans rally around a cause and say ‘We are taking back our government for the people as opposed to the very few for whom it has worked largely since the 1980s,'” continues Richardson, author of the book, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War. “The reason the people care so much about it in the North and the West as well as in the South, and the reason white people as well as black people care about it to the degree they do is that it is not just about race, it’s about the nature of the American government. Who gets to have a say in the government? For whom should the American government work?”
The Confederate flag flying in front of the South Carolina statehouse has become a lightning rod for controversy in the days after nine African Americans were gunned down inside an historic church. And while many of the calls for its removal are rooted in the slavery and racism the Confederate flag represents, the emblem also symbolizes the relationship between individuals and the federal government, says a Boston College historian.
“The controversy is about racism, but it’s also about the government,” says Professor Heather Cox Richardson, an expert in nineteenth-century America. “The flag represents opposition to an active national government. It’s no accident that we’ve got secession movements all over the country now.”
Richardson says an example of an anti-government sentiment are Northerners who fly Confederate flags even though their ancestors fought for the Union. Because they identify with the Confederacy, what they really are identifying with is a smaller, more individualistically styled government.
“The whole link between federal government activism and rights for African Americans is laid down in Reconstruction but it really takes off in the modern era when the Supreme Court rules on Brown v. Board of Education,” says Richardson, author of five books on the era. “After that, people on the right start screaming, ‘We told you that if you had an active government, it was going to start helping black people.’ And that gives rise again to the Confederate flag. It really takes off during the 1960’s and 70’s when a lot of people on the Northern side as well as the Southern side oppose the government’s actions in Vietnam. Then Richard Nixon taps into that strategy with the Southern Strategy, and it becomes a vital part of American politics.”
Richardson says the fight over the flag could be a touchstone moment for a change in the way the American population approaches politics and the federal government.
“I think what we’re fighting over is the same thing we were fighting over from 1861 – 1865: are we a nation under a federal government or are we a group of states that can do whatever they want?” wonders Richardson, author of the book, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War. “There is now suddenly a symbol around which people who do believe in the federal government and who do believe in the nation can rally, and it’s this flag in front of the South Carolina statehouse. It is a different kind of battle flag.”
“Bombing churches and shooting in them is part of the history of white terrorism against African Americans because of the link between black political participation and religious activity,” says Professor Heather Cox Richardson, an expert in nineteenth-century America. “Domestic shootings in America against the white population are almost never in a church.”
Before the shooting, witnesses say 21-year old Dylann Roof said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country.”
“It is an astonishing quotation because it comes directly from Reconstruction,” says Richardson, author of five books on the era. “The idea that ‘You are taking over our country’ is the idea that African Americans are somehow not supposed to be participating in our political system. This comes directly out of Reconstruction, when African Americans had votes for the first time and white opponents insisted that black voters, who were a minority of the electorate, would take over the entire government.”
Richardson says it was more than just a coincidence the murders occurred in a church.
“The fact that Roof would target a black religious community and shoot down a state legislator and clergyman is absolutely not an accident,” says Richardson, author of the book, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War. “There are parallels to that in American history. In South Carolina in 1868, another black clergyman and state legislator, B. F. Randolph, was gunned down at a train depot to keep him from continuing to organize African Americans to have a voice in American society.
“Who knows what's going through the mind of a troubled soul like Roof, but when something like this happens, you can’t simply look at the one individual and say, “Oh, he was whacked.” You have to look at the larger society - what made him target these particular people in this particular place? Why, when this man cracked, did he crack the way he did? Why did he choose African Americans, and why did he choose a church? Those choices are something that society is responsible for, not one individual.”
Roof was pictured in a Facebook post wearing clothing with the flags of the former Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, both formerly ruled by white minorities. That’s not surprising, says Richardson.
“Roof believes that whites should control the government,” she said, “just as white southerners believed after the Civil War. In that era, they organized the Ku Klux Klan to keep the government in the hands of white people. We’re looking at the same issue now. African Americans, women, and minorities are demanding a say in the American government and there’s a significant part of the population that thinks that’s a really bad idea.”
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