The Hanover Area Historical Society has a collection of replica flags it loaned to the Pennsylvania State Capitol for display in honor of Flag Day. Three of these fifty flags are confederate flags: A First National Flag, a Bonny Blue Flag, and an Army of Tennessee battle flag. State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-Philadelphia) took umbrage at seeing the battle flag and removed it herself, dropping it off at the office of state House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), who turned it over to capitol police. Capitol police returned the flag to the display, but Gov. Tom Wolf (D) ordered it removed. Since the state Department of General Services, which administers the Capitol building, falls under Gov. Wolf’s authority, he has the power to do so. State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) complained about the other two flags, and Gov. Wolf had them removed as well. “The Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and hatred and he doesn’t think it should be displayed in a state building,” according to the Governor’s spokesperson, Jeff Sheridan. In explaining her actions, Rep. Brown said, “That Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, murder and oppression.” See stories here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Is this a case of “political correctness” run amok? Is it a case of “censoring history” or trying to “sugarcoat history?”
One has to ask, first, what was the display about, and was the inclusion of the flags appropriate?
The display is from the Wilfred C. Clausen collection of 78 replica historical flags. According to the historical society, “The collection of handmade replica flags spans the age of early exploration – starting with a flag believed to have flown on Viking quadroons – through colonization and expansion to the present day.” But not quite to the present day. The collection hasn’t been updated since the 1972 death of Mr. Clausen, so historical flags, such as the rainbow flag, aren’t included.
An early news story said the theme of the display was “different eras of exploration, colonization, expansion, and territory.” That makes me wonder, what the heck was any confederate flag doing as part of the display to begin with? What did it have to do with the exploration and colonization of the New World? What does it have to do with expansion of the United States across the continent and US territories? “When asked about whether the flag belonged as part of a historical display, Sheridan said, ‘Pennsylvania wasn’t part of the Confederacy, so I’m not sure why that would be a symbol of a historical display in our building here in the Capitol.’ ‘It should never have been in here in the first place,’ he added.”
Debra Markle of the historical society curated the display. “The flags, she said, were chosen and displayed in chronological order to reflect the expansion of the United States.” But that doesn’t explain the confederate flags. The confederacy wasn’t a reaction against expansion of the United States. The Civil War wasn’t about whether or not the United States would expand. It had to do with the expansion of slavery.
Another version of the display’s purpose is these are “flags that have flown over what is now the U.S., including from territories and the colonial period.” It might cover the First National Flag, but it doesn’t explain the battle flag or the Bonnie Blue Flag. They were carried by armies and didn’t “fly over” what is now the United States.
The most current version of the display’s purpose is it’s a “display of 50 flags from different chapters of North American history.” That makes some sense, but again we ask why the Army of Tennessee’s battle flag made the cut. We also can ask why the Bonnie Blue Flag made the cut. They are historical flags, but what other battle flags are included in the collection?
So it’s iffy as to whether or not the flag even belonged in the display to start with. If we’re going to say this is “political correctness” run amok, we’re going to have to show the flag was being displayed in proper historical context. So far that’s in question.
Rep. Brown says her basic complaint is the battle flag was displayed without the proper context. She said “the placard underneath it did not ‘properly say that this was a symbol of hatred, murder and oppression.’ ” She says she’s not opposed to the display of the flag as long as it’s displayed in the proper context. “Brown, who chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said she’s not necessarily opposed to the display of the Confederate flag as part of a historical display. The problem with the historical society’s display, she said, was that the adjoining plaque didn’t provide the history of bloodshed and racism that the flag represents. ‘That flag can come back up, but it has to tell the truth,’ she said.”
The plaques were removed from the places that contained the flags, so we can’t check to see what they said. So still, the historical context of the display is in doubt.
What about the claim that this is just history, and that the display should remain intact because it’s history?
“Markle, reached by phone after the flag’s removal, said she couldn’t recall what was on the plaque but reiterated that the Civil War-era flags are part of America’s shared history. ‘It’s very disheartening,’ she said of Wolf’s order to take down the flag. ‘They’re caving in to bullies, period.’ ” According to Rep. Harris, “Those things cannot happen. If there needs to be more education so that people understand what these symbols mean, then that’s something that we need to do, but these kinds of things can’t happen. This is the state Capitol. This is the people’s Capitol.”
“The flag is still a powerful symbol of America’s long history of slavery and the racism that persists today, Harris said. Even in a historical display, he said, it has no place in the Capitol. ‘Sure, it’s a difficult part of our history, but it’s a part of the history that had my ancestors in chains,’ he said. ‘No other part of anyone’s history that includes slavery . . . would be acceptable to still display. It is a part of our history,’ he added, ‘but it’s a part of our history we shouldn’t be celebrating by hanging those flags in this Capitol.’ ”
Here’s how the local CBS affiliate covered the story:
The ABC affiliate’s stories at 6PM and 11PM were slightly different, and I thought you should see both versions:
Bottom line, I can see a protest against removal of the First National Flag being valid if we take the last two versions of the display’s purpose as being what it was about, but if we’re to claim the removal of the other two flags is “political correctness,” we have to also take into account that the display was flawed because those two flags shouldn’t have been included. If there’s a political purpose behind removing them, we have to acknowledge the strong possibility of a political purpose behind including them. They had nothing to do with any of the various expressed purposes of the display. Since 50 of the 78 flags in the collection were used, it’s not unreasonable to think the battle flag and the Bonnie Blue Flag could have easily been left out without adversely affecting the purpose of the display.
Consider also that Flag Day, which the display purportedly honored, is a patriotic US day of commemoration. There’s nothing patriotic to the US about any confederate flag.