Confederate flag: 'Symbol of
fight by labor's deadly enemies'
Below is an excerpt from a talk by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, to a 2001 socialist conference in Oberlin, Ohio, organized by the SWP and the Young Socialists. It is taken from the chapter "Jim Crow, the Confederate Battle Flag, and the Fight for Land" in Pathfinder's book Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power . Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY JACK BARNES
In the decade following the defeat of the slavocracy in 1865, the rising northern industrial bourgeoisie — now reknitting links with powerful landholding, commercial, and emerging manufacturing interests across the South — settled once and for all that it had no intention of meeting the aspirations of freed slaves for the radical land reform captured by the popular demand for "forty acres and a mule." Doing so, first of all, would have deprived these exploiters of a cheap supply of jobless laborers. What's more, the bourgeoisie correctly feared that an alliance of free farmers, Black and white, together with the growing manufacturing and machinofacturing working class in the cities, could pose a strong challenge to intensifying exploitation in town and country, North and South.
In 1877 the U.S. rulers withdrew federal troops from the states of the old Confederacy. These troops had been the armed force of last resort standing between the freed Black toilers, on the one hand, and gangs of well-armed reactionary vigilantes, on the other. Throughout the closing decades of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, successive generations of organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia, the White League, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens' Councils, and many others — named, unnamed, or renamed — carried out an unrelenting reign of terror against the Black population in the South. …
The battles for Black freedom in rural counties, small towns, and cities across the South, and extending to the North, helped in turn to transform the possibilities for workers and farmers alike throughout this country, and throughout other parts of the world under assault by Washington. The conquests of this mass proletarian-based movement laid a foundation, among other things, for a common struggle with common demands by working farmers in the United States today, as part of a fighting worker-farmer alliance resisting the profit-driven course of the capitalist class. It attracted, politicized, and gave courage to several generations of youth who would provide the energy for struggles against the Vietnam War, against discrimination in all government employment and the armed forces, for the defense and extension of civil liberties and civil rights, for women's emancipation, and for an accompanying broad political radicalization.
The results of history remain alive for us, unresolved contradictions that never completely go away so long as the class questions posed by giant social and political conflicts remain unsettled and have yet to become a weapon in the hands of militants today. The full consequences of the defeat of Radical Reconstruction will only be uprooted following the victory of a proletarian revolution in this country.
That's why struggles over state governments displaying the Confederate battle flag, or over statues or holidays in tribute to political or military leaders of the slaveholders' rebellion, continue to have weight in the class struggle many decades — indeed almost a century and a half — after it was routed in a bloody civil war.*
These fights today in South Carolina, Mississippi, and elsewhere are not about Blacks and supporters of civil rights being mean to somebody in the South whose great granddaddy was a Confederate soldier who "fought bravely" and was "a good man." Let's stipulate that. Many Confederate soldiers did fight bravely and were good men; in their big majority they were the sons of workers and farmers, like most soldiers in any modern army, especially those in the infantry. What does that have to do with the murderous political meaning, both then and now, of the battle flag of the Confederate army, an army vanquished and crushed for all time 136 years ago?
When displayed today, that flag is an emblem of, and encouragement to, reactionary forces who are determined to preserve as much as they can of the consequences of a bloody counterrevolution that shaped the trajectory of the U.S. class struggle in the twentieth century. It is a rallying point for forces who are acting on that determination. It is a symbol of the fight by deadly enemies of labor to turn back the gains of the civil rights movement and to divide and weaken the working class in this country. It is the flag of cowards on the highways, assaulting the dignity of Blacks day in and day out with stickers and medallions on their rearview mirrors, windows, and bumpers. It is the banner under which, only a few years ago, brutal and bloody assaults against Blacks were launched. And, most important, it remains a banner under which such assaults — against African Americans, immigrants, Jews, abortion clinics, gays, and other targets of reaction — often are and will be launched until the capitalist roots of that Dixie rag are ripped out of the ground by the toilers of this country and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat.
* The biggest of these fights was in South Carolina. On January 17, 2000, some fifty thousand people marched in Columbia, South Carolina, to demand the Confederate battle flag be taken down from the state capitol. The flag had been raised over the building in 1962 by the all-white state legislature as an act of defiant support to Jim Crow segregation and encouragement to those carrying out violent assaults on demonstrations for Black rights. Among the organizers of the Columbia march were members of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 in Charleston. Three days later ILA pickets at the docks protesting the use of scab labor by a shipper were assaulted by six hundred cops in riot gear. Several unionists were injured, eight arrested, and five indicted on felony charges of instigating a riot. In November 2001, in face of a growing defense campaign involving thousands of workers around the country, prosecutors dropped the frame-up felony charges and replaced them with misdemeanors, to which the workers pled no contest and were fined $100 each.
In July 2000, by vote of the state legislature, the Confederate banner was taken down and moved to a flagpole on capitol grounds next to a monument to fallen Confederate soldiers.