By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
For some, the Confederate flag represents regional pride, a connection to the ancestral past, and sacrifice. For others, it’s a symbol of oppression and discrimination – long ago, recent, and present. For others, it’s about vague, undefined defiance. And for a small number of people, including that mass murderer in Charleston, it’s an inspiration to do very bad things.
Three out of four of those associations aren’t positive.
You can display almost whatever symbol you want on your car, property or shirt. When it comes to public areas, the Confederate flag has its places – such as in museums and adorning the graves of Confederate soldiers.
But I can’t see a good reason to display at any state Capitol a symbol that makes a lot of people feel bad and is used by a few to promote hatred and bigotry. So I’m glad the governor of Alabama ordered the flags removed from his Capitol. I hope South Carolina legislators do the same. Moreover, I support Fort Smith Southside’s decision to change its “Rebels” nickname and stop playing “Dixie.” If I were an African-American student, I would not like those being associated with my school.
So what about that one star on Arkansas’ flag?
According to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the state did not have a flag until 1913. The Pine Bluff chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution decided one was needed to fly above the Navy’s new battleship, the USS Arkansas, and initiated a statewide contest to design one. Miss Willie Hocker of Wabbaseka had the winning design.
The flag the state adopted is not just one symbol, but many. The red, white and blue colors represent the United States. The diamond represents Arkansas being the only diamond-producing state. The 25 stars arrayed in the blue diamond represent the fact that Arkansas was the 25th state admitted to the union.
The first flag included three blue stars, two above and one below the word “Arkansas,” to represent the three nations to which Arkansas belonged prior to statehood: France, Spain and the United States. In 1923, the Legislature added a fourth blue star to mark the state’s membership in the Confederacy. At first, there were two stars above the word and two below. The next year, the design was changed so that the Confederate star stands alone on top. In 1987, the Legislature passed a bill, signed by then-Gov. Bill Clinton, that reaffirmed the flag’s symbolism, including the fact that the star’s purpose is “to commemorate the Confederate States of America.”
That star, and that commemoration, has not escaped notice, especially given that Hillary Clinton is running for president and has spoken in support of South Carolina removing the Confederate flag from its Capitol.
The question is, what does it mean to “commemorate”? My online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it several ways, including “to remind people of,” and “to remember and honor.” Google’s definition includes the word “celebrate.”
Does Arkansas’ flag remember, or does it celebrate the Confederacy? It seems to me to do more remembering – at least, it does for us today. I have no more allegiance to the Confederacy than I do to France or Spain. It’s troubling that the era is marked by the single star above Arkansas rather than one of the three below. I’d rather the top star represent the U.S.A. That could be changed with an act of the Legislature, but I don’t look for that to happen.
The meanings of symbols change over time and often according to circumstance. For example, the dollar bill can represent thrift, industry or greed, depending on how it’s used. The U.S. Capitol dome sometimes appears in political commercials to represent corruption, not democracy.
For enough Americans, the Confederate flag’s meaning has never changed. It has always represented slavery and discrimination. It’s always made some of us feel set apart and looked down upon. So it doesn’t belong amidst the halls of democracy where, ideally, everyone is supposed to be represented equally.
As for Arkansas’ flag, let it be a history lesson, and a reminder of how far the state has journeyed. At one time Arkansas was French. At another, Spanish. And at another, on the wrong side of history. It’s all worth remembering, even if it all shouldn’t be celebrated.