Crashing symbols

Confederate Railroad, Nike’s Betsy Ross shoes caught in cultural whirlwind

The country group Confederate Railroad has been banned from Illinois state-sponsored events over the use of Confederate flags in its logo. (Confederate Railroad)

The country group Confederate Railroad has been banned from Illinois state-sponsored events over the use of Confederate flags in its logo. (Confederate Railroad)

By Ted Cox

Symbols, like all art, are subject to interpretations, and Illinois is spinning over a couple of recent controversies caused by a cultural whirlwind.

First, let’s just stick to the facts and fine details, shall we? The country band Confederate Railroad was canceled this week by the Illinois Department of Agriculture from making an upcoming appearance at the DuQuoin State Fair over the use of the Confederate flag in its logo.

The shoe firm Nike, meanwhile, recently canceled plans to use the design of the so-called Betsy Ross Flag — the original design of today’s U.S. flag, only with 13 stars in a circle in the blue corner to represent the original 13 colonies, rather than 50 stars in lines for the 50 states — over concerns that it’s become a symbol for white supremacists, but U.S. Rep. Mike Bost responded this week by saying he’ll submit a resolution in Congress basically sanctifying that flag.

Two flags: one a symbol of the nascent nation, the other a symbol of the insurgent Confederacy that declared itself independent only to be dragged back into the union in the Civil War. It seems simple enough. They’re just flags, after all. What’s the offense?

They’ve both become loaded with significance, that’s what, and many Illinoisans take offense over what they’ve come to represent.

The Confederate stars and bars is a symbol of pride to many in the South, to be sure. But that raises the question, what exactly are people proud of when they display that flag? Southern resilience? A particularly Southern spirit of ornery independence? Outright rebellion? Slavery?

It’s a loaded symbol, and to many it’s genuinely fearsome, representing not only slavery, but those who would assert white supremacy today.

Let’s be clear. At One Illinois we defend the 1st Amendment and its provisions for freedom of speech and of the press. It’s always better to be receptive to an argument and to counter it if necessary in the free and open exchange of ideas. But that doesn’t mean utter unfettered freedom to say or express whatever one wants. One can’t brandish a Confederate flag at, say, the Bud Billiken Parade with impunity any more than one can shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. There are elements not only of sensitivity, but of responsibility involved.

Nonetheless, while state Rep. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro acknowledged on her Facebook page that “people are polarized” by the Confederate flag, she sought a meeting with state officials in Chicago this week to reinstate Confederate Railroad on the bill at the DuQuoin State Fair.

According to Emily Bittner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pritzker, the meeting included three senior administration officials, two of them African Americans. “Rep. Bryant lectured them about why the Confederate flag should be acceptable based on ‘heritage,’” Bittner said in a statement sent to Rich Miller, who covered the issue extensively on his Capitol Fax website. “The officials made a good-faith effort to share with Rep. Bryant” the reasons for their qualms and for canceling Confederate Railroad at the fair. To wit:

“The Confederate flag is a symbol of the hate, oppression, and enslavement of African Americans. It was flown over states that committed treason and started a war — so that they could keep enslaving people. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in this fight over whether the nation should allow slavery or end it. Abraham Lincoln’s assassin was a disciple of the Confederacy. In short, the Confederate flag symbolizes slavery and the rebellion against the United States, and it is exactly what our state’s greatest son, President Lincoln, was fighting against. This symbol of hate, oppression, and bloodshed is categorically different from political satire.”

State Rep. Terri Bryant sought to have Confederate Railroad reinstated at the DuQuoin State Fair. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

State Rep. Terri Bryant sought to have Confederate Railroad reinstated at the DuQuoin State Fair. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Political satire comes up because Bryant, in a bit of tit-for-tat, argued that, if Confederate Railroad was banned on the grounds that people took offense, then rapper Snoop Dogg should be banned from the main State Fair in Springfield this summer, because two years ago he promoted an album with a photo that found him standing over a dead body covered with a U.S. flag, and the body bore a toe tag reading, “Trump.”

That may be offensive to many backers of President Trump, but it is without a doubt also constitutionally protected free speech as political satire. Comparing that to the Confederate flag is a false equivalency intended by Bryant to muddy the waters to get her way. Bittner rejected that unequivocally, saying, “This administration’s guiding principle is that the state of Illinois will not use state resources to promote symbols of racism. Symbols of hate cannot and will not represent the values of the Land of Lincoln.”

What’s especially troubling, however, is that some are using the controversy to once again sew divisions between Illinoisans. A music promoter named Joe McKinney told the Southern Illinoisan newspaper he regarded it as an intrastate culture war. “This is about southern Illinois proving a point,” he said. “This choice was made by a select few up north who are offended, instead of what the majority want, and the band was completely disrespected.”

Sorry, but McKinney well knows that there are plenty of people across southern Illinois, whites and African Americans, who are offended and made uncomfortable by the Confederate flag, whether they see it on a music group’s logo or a bumper sticker or flying in a neighbor’s yard. It’s not just Chicago elitists imposing their values on those downstate; it’s the state as a whole deciding it will not fund any artist or group that traffics in such racist symbolism.

Which brings us to the Betsy Ross Flag. Its origin story, of seamstress Ross being recruited to sew the flag by none other than Gen. George Washington himself, might be apocryphal, but there’s no denying it’s the original U.S. flag, with a striking design. In fact, one could argue that the 13 stars arranged in a circle are more symbolic of unity than the regimented 50 stars in lines as seen in the modern-day U.S. flag.

Nike dropped its plans this summer to release a shoe using the Ross flag design on its heel over concerns raised by Colin Kaepernick, the blackballed NFL quarterback who made an issue of police brutality and racial injustice a few years ago when he began taking a knee during the national anthem. That in itself was enough for some to declare a new battle in the ongoing culture wars, over what was perceived as the hypersensitivity of some privileged athlete who found the shoes offensive.

That ignores, however, that the Betsy Ross Flag has been appropriated by white-supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which is what Kaepernick was drawing on in his opposition. Newsweek reported this month that the KKK “passed out mini Betsy Ross Flags in a New York town in 2018 (and) it also used images of the flag in a letter sent to a campus newspaper in Washington in 2017.” Newsweek also cited how a Georgia branch of the KKK adopted the Betsy Ross Flag as a backup at its events, in case a Confederate flag was lacking, and it “also caused a stir in Michigan in 2016 after a gaggle of young white men waved the Betsy Ross Flag during a high-school football game. The incident led a school-district superintendent to issue an apology after some families pointed out their discomfort with the flag and the NAACP noted the flag's adoption by extremist groups.”

So it’s not just an elite athlete raising concerns. The flag has definitely been claimed as a symbol by white supremacists, and its use needs to be scrutinized, just as with the seemingly innocent “OK” hand gesture that has also been picked up as a code by such groups.

Congressman Bost, a Murphysboro Republican, planned to submit a resolution this week defending the Betsy Ross Flag, joined as a co-sponsor by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat. But in an impassioned statement issued on his Twitter account, Bost spoke of “the ridiculousness that somehow this flag is racist.”

He continued, “Well, the reality is it’s never been considered racist. It’s been considered a flag of freedom … our first flag.

“This has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with party,” Bost insisted. “It has to do with the distortion of what our history is.”

More power to Bost if he can reclaim the Betsy Ross Flag as a symbol of our nation’s birth and natural optimism and unity, but he does no one any favors by turning a blind eye to the racial issues brought up by its more recent misuse by white-supremacist groups. His position — and his resolution — would be stronger if he openly confronted their distortion of our nation’s history and our “heritage,” but the resolution makes no mention of race, and instead he tries to ignore it.

That’s not how we confront racial bias and fears. That’s not how we reach a shared agreement on what symbols mean and how they may be used and abused. It’s how problems persist and worsen, and on that allow us at One Illinois to say we’re not just whistling Dixie.