Barack Obama

The Oklahoma Confederacy Disconnect

President Barack Obama in Denver

The historical disconnect between Oklahoma as a legal entity granted statehood in 1907 and the Civil War makes waving the Confederate flag here as part of the state’s heritage almost as inane as the ugly racist overtones.

Note I use the word “almost.” Waving the Confederate flag in the face of the first black American president, which happened here this week, is an ugly and intentional act of racism and hatred. The Confederacy, under its flag, sent thousands of its people to their deaths in the nineteenth century to sustain the sordid and inhumane institution of slavery, which remains a blight on the nation’s historical record. American slavery still remains foundational to any discussion about racism in this country.

Let me be clear: Waving the Confederate flag in honor is a blatant act of racism or might represent a lack of basic historical knowledge. Waving it in the face of an African American in a taunting manner might even rise to the status of a crime given specific circumstances.

President Barack Obama visited Oklahoma on Wednesday and Thursday, speaking in Durant about expanding rural Internet access and then about corrections reform at the federal prison in El Reno. He stayed overnight at an Oklahoma City hotel. In Durant and Oklahoma City, he was met with extremely small groups of people waving Confederate flags, which made world news and embarrassed or should have embarrassed people in the state.

Even some Oklahoma Republicans were actually shocked. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, for example, condemned the flag wavers in no uncertain terms. A statement by Cole on the issue begins like this:

I was shocked and disappointed by those who showed up to wave Confederate flags soon after President Obama arrived in Oklahoma. Their actions were not only disappointing but incredibly disrespectful, insensitive and embarrassing to the entire state.

The Confederate flag has been in the news recently following the shooting death of nine people at a historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, has been associated with the flag in images and media stories. South Carolina just recently removed a Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds.

The flag wavers in Oklahoma were miniscule, but they were there, and they received broad, worldwide coverage. Yet it should be simply noted that Oklahoma didn’t even become a state until 1907, more than 40 years after the South lost the Civil War. Of course, people live here who might have grown up in the seven initial Confederate states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, but it’s a reach in terms of symbolism to directly connect “Oklahoma” (note the quotes) to what gets called “the old South.”

My point here is any historical or heritage argument made in favor of waving the Confederate flag in Oklahoma just doesn’t fit neatly with the state’s history. It’s a skewed and complicated connection. Ironically, “Oklahoma,” the legal entity, got some really bad press out of a historical symbol it really has no right to claim in the first place. There IS the fact that some members of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations primarily fought with the Confederates in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, but some members of these nations were pro-Union. Again, it’s complicated, and worth studying, but it’s obvious Oklahoma doesn’t have an old-South plantation heritage, say, like Mississippi or Georgia. Again, Oklahoma wasn’t a federally recognized state during a war between federally recognized states.

This doesn’t mean Oklahoma doesn’t have its own history of racism and hatred in which a predominately white power structure limits the civil rights of people belonging to minority groups, but as much as linking this to the Confederate flag might make perfect sense the state just wasn’t a state when the plantation owners sent their sons to die for a lost and dishonorable cause.