EDITORIAL: Confine Confederate flag to museums

York Dispatch
  • A Philadelphia lawmaker removed a Confederate flag from a Flag Day display in the Capitol.
  • After it was returned to the display, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered it removed once again.
  • We agree that the state Capitol is not the place for the Confederate flag.
  • It should be relegated to museums and historical societies.

The Confederate battle flag continues to inspire battle lines, although increasingly becoming relegated to public historic displays in museums and the like.

State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, looks at flags after taking the Confederate flag down from a display Tuesday night at the Pennsylvania Capitol East Wing Rotunda fountain area. The flag was returned to the display Wednesday and then ordered removed by Gov. Wolf. The flag is part of the Hanover Area Historical Society's display of flags from different chapters of North American history, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. (Dan Gleiter/PennLive.com via AP)

Private citizens, of course, may exercise their right to wave the flag, but they should do so fully understanding the message they are sending. That's because a good number of of Americans, black and white, perceive it as a symbol of racism or hate.

This is the backdrop against which the dust-up over the flag in the Capitol on June 14 — Flag Day — is set.

Here is what happened:

Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, a Democrat from Philadelphia and chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, saw a Confederate flag on display in the state Capitol in Harrisburg, and it immediately seemed to her to be out of place in a government building. It's historic context as part of a Flag Day display did not seem to her to override the fact that it was flying in the state Capitol.

So she took it down and turned it over to House officials. By 11 a.m., the Confederate flag was hanging back in its display — only to be removed again at 11:45 a.m. by an order from Gov. Tom Wolf.

Confederate flag from Hanover display removed from Pennsylvania Capitol exhibit

And here, in a nutshell, is the sensitive nature of the historic relic. Many believe, and we are among them, that the flag represents racism and oppression and should be relegated to historic displays, primarily in museums. The problem with this historic display, which is an appropriate place for such a relic, is that it was in a government building in Harrisburg, which one could argue should not fly a Confederate flag under any circumstances.

The flag was not returned to the display of 50 flags from different chapters of North America in the Capitol, curated by the Hanover Area Historical Society.

That we are increasingly polarized as a society also is  a factor. Some would argue that the flag represents a heritage to which they feel connected. And in a free country, they are free to display the flag on their property or person, absolutely. But, again, they should do so knowing the inherently hurtful feelings it causes others.

“That Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, murder and oppression,” Brown said.

It’s certainly more than that, too. The Confederate flag also is  the symbol of a government that seceded from the United States and invaded Pennsylvania. Its sympathizers assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and attempted to overthrow the government of the United States. Yet despite being vanquished and destroyed, the Confederate battle flag continued to be a symbol of voter suppression, school segregation and the fight against civil rights.

All things  the United States stands against.

So within that context, it is clear why Brown reacted so strongly to the symbol flying in the Capitol — and why the governor concurred.

Museums rightfully display historic symbols of hate, war and oppression. We can never forget the swastika and what it stands for or, as philosopher George Santayana warned, we could be condemned to repeat our past. This is in part why museums large and small curate such historical exhibits.

The Hanover Area Historical Society is an organization whose members advocate for historic preservation and education.

“It's part of American history,” said Debra Markle, a member of the historical society’s board. “We can’t sugarcoat everything — and it’s just a shame that one person’s opinion has to ruin it for so many. But it seems that’s the way it’s going in this country.”

The flag of the Confederacy was not the only one on display at the Capitol. The Flag Day presentation featured another Confederate flag called the Bonnie Blue Flag, first used in Mississippi when the state seceded from the union in 1861. The collection  included many handmade flags, as well.

Debra Markle is right: History is complicated and messy. American history is especially muddled when one considers all the injustices done behind the banner of the stars and stripes. Yet for as dirty and bedraggled as American history can be, it can always be used as a tool for learning from our mistakes.

When it comes to the Confederate flag, Brown simply asked that the full story be told if the flag was to fly in the historic display at the Capitol.

“That flag can come back up, but it has to tell the truth,” Brown said.

We agree. We would never argue against someone's right to personal expression and we wholeheartedly agree that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. But there is a time and a place for symbols of hate, and a government building — even on Flag Day — is not one of them.