Flags were aflutter amid the conglomeration of boats around the sandy shallows at the confluence of the New River and the Intracoastal Waterway. Mostly banners of the Seminole and the Gator kind, flying from boats anchored where young partiers like to stand in waist-deep water with their beer and Frisbees. (Nice thing about getting most of your news from social media, you tend to miss those dull little newspaper stories about the fecal coliform count in Fort Lauderdale’s inland waterways.)
I was kayaking through the drunken rowdiness Saturday when another flag came into view. A startling sight, at least to me, just four days after the Charleston massacre. A fishing boat motored by with a big Confederate flag dangling from the rigging.
It seemed so damn inappropriate.
Of course, I could only guess at the message the three shirtless young white guys in the boat intended to convey. Who knows? Maybe their display of the most recognizable symbol of neo-Confederate racism had nothing to do with the mass murder of nine unarmed black people. Maybe they weren’t advertising solidarity with the accused killer, his racist motivations and his fetish for the Confederate battle flag.
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Sorry. I assumed otherwise, raising a finger in the appropriate salute, a stupid gesture from an old guy bobbing around in a 40-pound piece of plastic.
I’ve covered news events in the South since 1969, starting with a newspaper in the still-segregated Mississippi Delta. And that particular totem has popped up, over and over, as a symbol of nostalgia for segregation, of defiance to modern democratic values, of gun-toting racial hatred. The flag has long had an unsavory association with KKK rallies and black church burnings and racist murders.
None of this is news, of course. Not in the Old South. But to political leaders whose electoral strategy has been based on pandering to the baser instincts of disgruntled, white, working-class voters, it was if last week’s killings brought on a sudden epiphany about that flag’s racist legacy.
Even the leaders in diehard South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi now seem to acknowledge that the murderous connotations of the Confederate battle flag outweigh the need to honor white Southern heritage. Though maybe the flag just offers them an excuse to avoid questions about the insane proliferation of guns.
But that heritage argument was always flimsy in Florida. When the state joined the secessionists, Florida’s population was only about 140,000. More than 60,000 of those residents were slaves whose descendants would hardly be inclined to embrace a Confederate heritage. The progeny of the other 80,000 Floridians have long since been overwhelmed by immigrants from Yankee states and foreign nations.
The only Florida Civil War battle of note, a fight at Olustee, has been remembered by historians mostly as a war crime, when victorious Confederate troops massacred wounded and surrendered black troops, many of whom had been recruited from Florida plantations. Some heritage.
Florida’s state flag, with its red diagonal cross, seems vaguely Confederate, though Southern historian Fitzhugh Brundage, formerly with the University of Florida, now with the University of North Carolina, told me by email Wednesday that he could find little evidence that the 1900 design was meant to honor the “lost cause.” He noted that redesigns of the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi had been “unquestionably manifestations of Confederate nostalgia and of strident white supremacy.” But not Florida. At least not in an obvious way.
The state did pass a law (of laughable constitutionality) back in 1961, when civil rights crusaders were threatening to undermine the segregationist status quo that made it illegal to defile or “cast contempt upon” the Confederate flag. And the state, in another act of Old South defiance, included the Confederate national flag on the state capitol grounds.
In 2001, then-Gov. Jeb Bush ordered the flag removed and placed in the state museum. Bush said that volatile symbols like that “should not be displayed in a manner that may divide Floridians today.”
That prompted angry demonstrations from the likes of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, some wearing their rebel gray army uniforms, who waved their Confederate flags and chanted, “One-term Jeb!” They distributed fliers declaring Bush was “wanted” for “desecration of public monuments” and for what they termed as a “cultural assassination.”
As it turned out, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans were about as effective in their political vendetta against two-term Bush as their ancestors were in trying to defeat the Yankees. They did, however, rally some support in the Florida House of Representatives, where a bill was introduced that would have made it illegal for governors, mayors or other government officials to move or change historic flags, monuments, memorials.
The bill was scuttled by legislative leaders before it reached the House floor, but the Florida flag controversy resurfaced this week to the discomfort of one of its co-sponsors, a young state representative named Marco Rubio. It made an unseemly corollary to the presidential candidate’s wishy-washy response last week to the demands that South Carolina take down the Confederate flag flying at the state capitol in Columbia.
After the Confederate flag was removed from the Capitol grounds in Florida, the Sons of the Confederacy erected a giant, car-dealer-sized Confederate flag on a 100-foot flagpole alongside Interstate 75 near the appropriately named town of White Springs.
The big, offensive flag still flies there, supposedly to commemorate our “Southern heritage and pride.”
When I drive by the flag, it sure as hell dredges up something. But nothing to do with my Southern heritage. Nothing like pride.