Opinion: Confederate flags and a noose: What century is this, anyway?

Souvenir vendor Ed Sugg, left, talks with a customer at his facility near Talladega Superspeedway prior to a NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Talladega Ala., Sunday, June 21, 2020.

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Souvenir vendor Ed Sugg, left, talks with a customer at his facility near Talladega Superspeedway prior to a NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Talladega Ala., Sunday, June 21, 2020.

On Father’s Day, Confederate flags were seen outside – and above, being pulled by a plane and accompanied by the words, “Defund NASCAR” – the Talladega Superspeedway. Late Sunday night, it was reported that a noose had been discovered in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only Black driver.

This was saddening. This was sickening. Was it surprising? Alas, no.

The reports from Talladega came on a day I recalled my father, who died 38 years ago this month. We talked often about race. (I came home from third grade and asked him what a word I’d heard that started with a “N” meant; he said, “That’s a bad word, son.”) Our longest talks came in the time of busing, which this teenager believed was the only way for inner-city kids to get a fair share of education. I’d make my case, and my dad would say, in his older/wiser way: “Yes, but you can’t legislate morality.”

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I thought of those words on this Father’s Day. At a time when monuments of Confederate figures are being removed and names of college programs changed in the effort to erase any connection with slavery; when NASCAR, the whitest of sports, has banned the Confederate flag from its races; when even the English Premier League put “Black Lives Matter” where players’ names usually go on their shirts – even in the year 2020, when nobody in this world could have missed the memo, we get the banned flag and a noose in a garage.

About the noose: There’s no euphemism for that. It isn’t open to interpretation. It’s an implement of murder. And yet: One was found in a garage in Lincoln, Ala., on June 21, 2020.

Rosa Parks declined to change her seat, also in Alabama, on Dec. 1, 1955. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. The Civil Rights Act became law July 2, 1964. Barack Obama was elected president of these United States on Nov. 4, 2008. But here we are, in a year that has seen the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and sometimes it seems as if we’ve gone nowhere. How is that possible?

This was Ed Sugg of Helena, Ala., speaking to the Associated Press at his concessions tent on Speedway Boulevard outside Talladega, a tent that displayed the Confederate flag: "I don't think anybody really connects it to any kind of racism or anything. It's just a Southern thing. It's transparent. It's just a heritage thing."

It’s “transparent,” all right. The Confederate flag has come to represent nothing but racism. “Southern heritage” is what some invoke in the attempt to justify an alleged affinity for antebellum ways, but let’s be honest: We all know what that flag means. That flag was the symbol of 11 states that left the union and fought against it, in large part so slavery could continue.

The Civil War ended April 9, 1865. The South lost. The Emancipation Proclamation became the law of all states, those that had seceded included. One hundred forty-five years would figure to be long enough for these United States to re-unify, but the 20th century came and went, and for all its upheavals and struggles and apparent triumphs, the land of the free is still trying to come to grips with its composition.

Here, however, is where we acknowledge reality, lamentable as it is. Banning the Confederate flag will not cure racism. Those people who felt the need to express their “heritage” by flying an insensitive flag atop their vehicle aren’t apt to be taking a knee alongside Colin Kaepernick anytime soon. We might succeed in driving hate underground, but we haven’t been able to kill it. Try as we might, we can’t legislate morality.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, though I can’t say I’m a-brim with optimism. Twenty-nine years after Rodney King, Minneapolis police felt the need to kneel on George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The famous George Santayana quote: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s the thing, though. None of us have forgotten. Darned if we’re not repeating it anyway.

As Wallace posted Sunday night on Twitter: “We will not be deterred by the reprehensible actions of those who seek to spread hate. As my mother told me today, ‘They are just trying to scare you.’”

And it is scary. It’s scary that it’s 2020 and we’re talking about nooses. It makes you want to holler – that’s from Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” released in 1971 – and it makes you want to weep.