Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Confederate Flag in Tampa

http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wbfo/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTICLE_ID=1310551

Commentary: A Northern View of the Confederate Flag in Tampa


BUFFALO, NY (2008-07-01) Tampa, Florida, has a Buffalo connection. But now that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have put up a 139-foot flagpole from which they're going to fly the Confederate stars and bars, I'm not too sure I want to visit Tampa any more.

Tampa has been attracting winter-weary folks from Buffalo since about the time a Buffalo engineer named Willis Carrier earned the first patents for air conditioning. It was air conditioning, and lots of federal money, that stimulated the great migration of capital and people from the Union states to the states of the Confederacy, including Florida. Buffalo flocks to Tampa in the annual "snowbird" migration, in such numbers, that the whole west coast of the Florida has a Buffalo feel about it.

But this huge Confederate flag reminds us that Florida is not home.

Home here in the north is the place from which many of our ancestors set out to serve in the Union army in the Civil War. They returned victorious, and their victory gave us the United States, including Florida. Almost 700,000 Americans died in that war that made us one country.

I actually knew the daughter of a man who fought in the Civil War, a man who was there to see the Confederate flag lowered in defeat the day General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The daughter of that soldier was my nana, my great-grandmother. Her father served with the 112th New York Volunteers, a regiment that helped defeat the rebellion in Florida. (His outfit also beat Johnny Reb in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, too.)

When I was a boy in the days before Vietnam, my nana and I went to parades and Independence Day events in our town. The Civil War service of those illustrious ancestors of ours was still being recognized along with the service of our World War II heroes still living. People still wore their Grand Army of the Republic insignia. Just about every town in our part of the world has a Civil War monument in the town square - a statute of a Union soldier in a forward-tilted cap, or a cannon, or an obelisk. The big city has parkways and great bronze sculptures of generals like Bidwell, and Grant, and Sheridan, and of course, Lincoln, our martyred hero.

And since the 1930s, the historical society here has been erecting markers throughout the region for farmhouses and churches where local people sheltered others, on their way to Canada - people whom the Confederacy fought to keep enslaved, people whom our Western New York ancestors fought to liberate.

Maybe kids who grow up in Concord and Lexington see the American flag and think about the Revolutionary War. Here in Western New York, the flag reminds me of Gettysburg, and of Bull Run. When I went to Arlington National Cemetery recently, which used to be General Robert E. Lee's estate, I didn't see the confederate flag he fought under. I saw the flag my nana's father fought for.

We know what the confederate flag is these days. It's a wise-ass provocation. It's a Tom Sawyer sort of gesture, a protest against the suffocating righteousness of equal rights and civil rights. Flying the stars and bars is a political expression.

But it is not an innocent expression. The confederate flag is the flag of losers. It is soaked in the blood of Americans who came together to put it down.

It's too bad for Tampa that all those Buffalo snowbirds who drive on the interstate will have to look at that big old loser confederate flag on their way to the sun. Me, I think I'd rather look at the flag they fly at Robert E. Lee's house - the flag that says, we came together, we're one people, with liberty and justice for all.

Listener-Commentator Bruce Fisher, former deputy Erie County Executive, writes a weekly column on the presidential race for "Artvoice."

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