One of the more notable things about congressional action to restrict the display of Confederate flags at Department of Veterans Affairs cemeteries was the debate before last week’s vote.
There was none.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) offered an amendment that would ban the flying of the flags on VA cemetery flagpoles, and no one said a word against it. Yet, many did vote no. Although their silence shows that it is increasingly unpopular to be associated with Confederate symbols, 159 House members, all Republicans but one, said no to Huffman’s amendment.
Those Confederate symbols have become increasingly toxic since last year’s Charleston, S.C., massacre of nine black churchgoers. The alleged gunman, Dylann Roof, had posed with the Confederate battle flag. Another photo shows him burning an American flag. While he might have been driven by hatred and racism, those attributes are not all that the Confederate flag represents.
That flag stands for treason. Confederates attacked the nation and killed U.S. government soldiers.
Huffman also plans to propose House action against the display of Confederate flags in National Park Service cemeteries and the sale of Confederate memorabilia in park stores. Confederate flags currently are permitted on flagpoles in VA cemeteries on Memorial Day and the Confederate Memorial Day. Huffman’s amendment still must be approved by the Senate, so Monday, Memorial Day, might be the last time that rebel sympathizers can fly their stars and bars from flagpoles over VA graveyards. Huffman’s amendment does not prohibit small Confederate flags on individual graves.
“Let’s stop pretending the Confederate flag isn’t a symbol of racism,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a sponsor of the bill. “The Confederate flag represents hate and intolerance and is a painful reminder of a terrible time in our history. VA cemeteries should be a place where we honor and pay tribute to American war heroes — not a place where we preserve the symbols of slavery and Jim Crow.”
True. But the issue with the flag goes even beyond white supremacy.
Although the Confederates were not tried for treason after the Civil War, their actions match the constitutional definition of the crime: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
That description certainly fits those who wore the Confederate gray or those who gave them aid and comfort.
“The Confederate battle flag is also a symbol of treason,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), another sponsor of the bill. Of Union soldiers, Ellison said, we “owe these brave Americans a solemn debt. We should ensure that the flag that their enemies carried so proudly does not fly above their graves.”
Confederate symbols represent “opposition to the United States of America,” Huffman said, adding, “Even General Robert E. Lee recognized that symbols of the Confederacy are symbols of treason.”
It is not only black people and liberal Democrats who have reason to oppose Confederate symbols — veterans do, too.
Ironically, the lone Democrat who voted against the measure is a black man and an Army veteran, Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia.
“While as a descendant of slaves I find the Confederate flag and the history it represents deeply offensive,” Bishop said in a statement, “I believe that the descendants of Confederate veterans should not be denied the privilege of honoring their dead ancestors two days of the year on a flagpole where their beloved are buried in mass graves.”
None of the Republicans contacted would comment on their votes.
But my colleague Amber Phillips published a message from an aide to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) to other congressional offices that linked opponents of the Confederate flag to the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
“You know who else supports destroying history so that they can advance their own agenda? ISIL,” wrote Pete Sanborn, Westmoreland’s legislative director, before the vote. “Don’t be like ISIL. I urge you to vote NO.”
Westmoreland did vote no. But at least he was smart enough to distance himself from Sanborn, who Westmoreland said was reprimanded.
But will he and the many other Republicans who voted against the amendment distance themselves from Confederate symbols when they next have the chance?
“It is shameful that two-thirds of the House Republican Caucus voted against” the bill, Huffman said. “Why would anyone in Congress — let alone a majority of the governing party — still condone displays of this hateful symbol on our sacred national cemeteries?”
Good question. There is no good answer.