Eleven days before the Charleston, S.C., tragedy ignited an old argument over the Confederate battle flag’s modern meaning, 800 stars-and-bars flapped at headstones in a state cemetery 50 miles east of Kansas City.
Roughly 100 Civil War buffs showed up in Higginsville, Mo., for an annual ceremony organized by private groups at the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site, where an old soldiers home once operated.
There were no protests that day, June 6. No complaints to the state. No vandalism — just another gathering of Missourians saluting ancestors who fought for the South.
Now the conversation has turned in a big way, and not just in the Deep South.
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Nor is it just about the Confederate flag.
Historians are hoping, although not necessarily expecting, that the flag debate signals an America willing to see the Civil War for what it was all about: The shame of slavery.
And the border states of Missouri and Kansas, where the bloodshed over slavery began, are appropriate places to hold that discussion.
At least it seemed that way last week.
In Wichita, City Council members suddenly questioned the wisdom of the battle emblem waving beside U.S. flags at a downtown plaza honoring veterans. In St. Louis, vandals spray-painted the words “Black Lives Matter” over the 101-year-old Confederate Memorial.
Symbols harking to the rebel cause were being debated everywhere against the stark backlight of nine people massacred in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photos went viral of the white suspect, Dylann Roof, 21, posing with the Dixie emblem.
At a Kansas City public library, a group that gathers for “Conversations in Black” switched their agenda on Thursday to discuss the week’s events in South Carolina and elsewhere.
“Many were surprised at the speed at which so many white leaders in the South are saying, ‘Take that (flag) down,’” said historian Joe Mattox, who attended the discussion.
A century ago some of the top scholars around dismissed the Old South’s dependence on slavery as the driving force in states seceding. Many pointed instead to high tariffs or Northern aggression or an unstoppable clash between industrial and agrarian cultures.
Sanitized versions of America’s defining struggle allowed whites in the South and North to sidestep the nation’s racist legacy, present thinking goes.
“There’s no romanticizing the cause here,” said Grady Atwater, administrator of the John Brown Museum State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kan. “It was all about slavery. One hundred fifty percent.”
Still the American public — perhaps influenced by today’s politics and films such as “Gone with the Wind” — may not yet be on board. A majority told Harris Interactive pollsters in 2011 that the South was mainly motivated by “states’ rights” rather than the future of slavery.
“I have these discussions all the time. I hear the ‘states’ rights’ argument all over the place,” Atwater said. “Southern sympathizers say it’s about heritage, not hate — and most I think genuinely do believe it.
“But some people who are terribly racist come in. I have a radar for them.”
The museum 50 miles southwest of Kansas City explores the savagery of the 1850s border war from both directions, between pro-slavery guerillas from Missouri and murderous abolitionists such as Brown, who believed he was doing God’s work.
Jeremy Neely, a Missouri State University expert on the border strife that continued into the war years, said slavery was in the middle of it all:
“That romantic or nostalgic regard for the Confederate flag — the ‘heritage not hate’ notion — is historically disingenuous, and I think that the removal of that flag from public buildings is long overdue.”
After South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley issued the call on Monday for the battle flag to be removed from the state Capital grounds, other southern Republicans swiftly echoed their support.
“Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves,” said South Carolina state Sen. Paul Thurmond, whose father, Strom, ran for president on a pro-segregation platform. “I am not proud of this heritage.”
Wal-Mart and Sears removed from shelves merchandise featuring images of rebel flags — belt buckles and ball caps included. Apple cleaned out video games featuring the same from its App Store.
“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred,” President Barack Obama said Friday at a memorial service for one of the Charleston victims.
“The flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, the flag was a symbol of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”
Yet Dixie Outfitters in Branson has rung up a burst of in-store purchases and online orders, said franchise owner Anna Robb.
“They’re coming in from all over — Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma,” she said. “An Indian reservation called us ordering 100 T-shirts with the Confederate flag. They know as well as anybody how our government can’t always be trusted.”
Robb said for many the flag is a contemporary statement against big government, for lower taxes, for rural independence, the right to bear arms and “all those issues going on today. That’s why they like it.”
But Mattox of Kansas City said another message is conveyed to black Americans — especially older people who saw the battle flag resurface in mainstream culture during integration struggles of the 1950 and ’60s.
“Whoever had those Confederate symbols on their trucks were telling me they were bad and they were mean,” said Mattox, 75, who volunteers at the Battle of Westport Museum and the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center.
“If I’m on the highway and got stuck behind one of those trucks, I wouldn’t pass it,” he said.
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The Kansas City area may not nationally be regarded as a hub of Civil War understanding, but area historians said it should be.
In fact, in the early 2000s, Congress designated 41 counties in both states as “Freedom’s Frontier,” a national heritage area.
Museums, cemeteries and events around Kansas City allow the curious to learn, historians say.
During recent 150th anniversary observances of the war in the western theater, Diane Mutti Burke spoke on Missouri slavery — an institution that stood despite the state, under federal occupation, being chalked up as Union.
At dozens of presentations she challenged the myth that “slavery was milder in Missouri.”
“The idea that it was milder has particular resonance among people whose family members owned slaves,” Mutti Burke, a University of Missouri-Kansas City associate professor and author of “On Slavery’s Border,” said last week in an email to The Star.
“I don’t know if I changed peoples’ minds through my presentations, but I hope so.”
At the Old Quindaro Museum, visitors can learn of the Underground Railroad that brought to Kansas City, Kan., slaves from Missouri and points south.
The curator there, Jesse Hope, 62, predicted that the nation’s views on the Civil War will drift further away from the romanticized version as more young whites learn the history: “The younger folks aren’t into ignoring people in terms of ethnicity.”
Sponsors of Confederate Memorial Day at the Higginsville cemetery insist they’re multicultural, too, even though ceremonies are scheduled on the Saturday closest to the birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
“This is not a political arena and we’re never going to make it one. It’s a memorial to our ancestors who served,” said organizer James Beckner of Raymore, who is active in Civil War roundtables on both sides of the state line.
In 2003 protests at the historical site prompted Missouri officials to remove a large battle emblem that hung daily from a tall pole. The smaller flags at each gravesite prompted no complaints this year, according to a state parks spokeswoman.
If anti-flag sentiments build into next year, Beckner said event sponsors may have to drop the practice of planting 800 little Dixie emblems.
But he’d be miffed: “It’s silly to blame a little flag for all the ills of this country.”
Tony Horowitz, author of two books on the Civil War, blogged last week that removing the divisive symbol from view may not be enough to rewrite the war’s narrative:
“Furling the statehouse flag may bring temporary relief to South Carolinians, but what we truly need to bury is the gauzy fiction that the antebellum south was in any way benign, or that slavery and white supremacy weren’t the cornerstone of the confederacy.”