Since surfacing a few weeks ago, pictures of the pill-popping, punkin-pie-haircutted, white supremacist nutbar Dylann Roof waving the Civil War-era banner of Southern secessionists have put Confederate flagophiles on the retreat. Roof, who is being charged with the murder of nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, is said to have been disappointed with the lack of actual power held by his hometown rebel-flag-coöpting skinheads, klansmen, or other white power hate groups (this, according to an online manifesto reportedly written by Roof).
The Confederate battle flag — which was flying high above many of Dixieland’s
state capitols on the day of Roof’s rampage — may be on its way down in places never thought possible.
On Monday, June 20, Nicki Haley, Republican governor of South Carolina, called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state house, arguing that though it had long been revered by many Southerners, the flag was, for some, a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past.”
Further South — in this state — the flag hasn’t flown in Tallahassee since pre-exclamation-point Jeb Bush called for its removal in 2001. According to the St. Petersburg Times, back then, on behalf of the governor, spokeswoman Katie Baur said, “Regardless of our views about the symbolism of the … flags — and people of goodwill can disagree on the subject — the governor believes that most Floridians would agree that the symbols of Florida’s past should not be displayed in a manner that may divide Floridians today.”
In Northeast Florida, those divisive symbols of the past are present, though, like spotting a rare bird, one has to know where to look: a front yard in Palm Valley, flanked by mudflaps on the license plate of a pickup, Lynyrd Skynyrd posters, the front of a ball cap worn at the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
Another place you can apparently find the stars and bars is The Museum of Southern History on Jacksonville’s Westside.
What the hell is The Museum of Southern History?
After both an email and a phone call went unreturned, I decided to pay a personal visit to the museum on Herschel Street, which, according to the institution’s website, is open Tuesday through Saturday. Unfortunately, not only was there no flag on the flag pole, but on this particular Tuesday, a sticky note on the front door informed me it was closed. Undeterred, I returned the next day only to find a larger (though equally unofficial-looking) note on the door, which read, “closed for summer vacation.”
As a last resort, I rapped at the chamber door. What luck! Not one, but two docents answered the door! Surely, as an interested member of the press (and a son of the South), I’d be invited in for a tour.
My expectations of Southern hospitality, however, turned out to be unfounded. The men told me they were not interested in talking to Folio Weekly.
I told them I was interested in hearing their views on Southern heritage and whether the Confederate flag might be divisive.
They said it was “a museum, not a political institution.”
The mens’ assertions of apolitical leanings are buoyed by the museum’s website, which, if you are a fan of vague, non-descript nostalgia for the antebellum South (who isn’t?), I urge you to visit (museumsouthernhistory.com). There you’ll find such sentences as:
“The museum is dedicated to historical accuracy in presenting the lifestyle and culture of the Antebellum South, a unique civilization, misunderstood by many, belittled and misrepresented by some … ” and other things that someone typed, like how those old days — you know when the South had built an extravagant, export-based economy on the backs of slave labor — are “deeply revered by the grateful descendants of the brave men and women whose sacrifices and dedication to a cause that created a chapter in our nation’s history that is unmatched.”
If the “cause” they are referring to is states’ rights, they are wrong by omission. What led to the Civil War, among other things, was states’ rights. To own slaves.
But tired and twisted as this argument may be, this kind of revisionist history is far from the hate-spewing rhetoric Dylann Roof pored over in the chat room conversations and on the webpages of right-wing extremists. Roof wasn’t radicalized in a museum run by white-haired, Civil War buffs.
The Southern History Museum’s website, however, is a good example of how, regardless of your beliefs (no matter how far-fetched, inaccurate, or fraught with errors by omission), you can find your ideological match through the Internet.
In the same week of the murders, The U.S. Census Bureau published some of its recent findings about how millennials, other than overtaking the baby-boomers as the largest generation, are unsurprisingly the most diverse generation in history. And it’s been concluded many times over that this generation is the most open-minded and empathetic of all. Born into a Wi-Fi optimized world, the digital natives of the millennial generation have the ability to connect with people and ideas on a scale that was unfathomable just decades ago.
Last week, this magazine was full of positive signs of progress here in Northeast Florida. From the Coming Out Monologues to gender-neutral restroom signage to Kit Yan and Stonewall in the Park, there are many reasons to believe in the ability of human beings to evolve.
But Dylann Roof, at age 21, is a millennial. He apparently shared few of his racist rants with anyone, in person. Instead, his ideas were confined to the dark reaches of Internet. If you’re looking for someone to argue for censorship of any kind, you won’t find it here, not from the editor of an alternative newspaper. Historically, though, we humans have never been particularly good at policing stupid. And as much as I’m optimistic about the potential of my generation, what happened in Charleston — and the conversations over race, tolerance, extremism, the silly Confederate flag that it sparked — make me believe we may be less equipped than ever to combat the evils of ignorance.