When I saw the two Confederate flags flapping from the bed of a pickup last week, I groaned.
I wondered: “Why would anyone fly those symbols of treason and white supremacy in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown?”
Worse yet, the fellow driving the pickup was near the Illinois State Fairgrounds at a time when tens of thousands of African American motorcyclists were camped there for the 41st National Bikers Roundup.
I enjoyed having breakfast with the bikers at Café Coco, the diner where I eat most mornings. It was great hearing their stories of traveling to our state’s capital from all corners of the nation.
And it was fun to admire their machines and hear their laughter.
I hoped that they felt welcome.
And then I got to thinking about those flags.
When it comes to race, Springfield – and Illinois -- have a mixed legacy.
The Rev. Martin Luther King said in 1966, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” after his march in the Windy City met violent opposition.
And in Springfield the story is much the same.
While it is the hometown of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, it is also the scene of the 1908 Springfield Race Riot in which 5,000 white rioters lynched two innocent black men.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had its inception in Illinois’ Capital City as a response to that disgraceful act.
For some folks, the Confederate flag congers up notions of the “Lost Cause.” They think of noble men riding steeds across glorious plantations to protect the honor of state’s rights.
What a crock of crap.
Last year, I called up Civil War historian Edward H. Bonekemper III, who wrote, “The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won.” And I asked him why we still argue about symbols such as the Confederate flag.
His answer: “This country has a race problem. You don’t see us this divided over the causes of the Revolutionary War or World War II. But the causes of the Civil War are all about slavery. And because this country has a race problem, it really hasn’t come to terms with why the Civil War was fought, yet.”
That, of course, raises the question of why someone in Central Illinois would fly the Stars and Bars. It certainly isn’t a reflection of our state’s heritage. Two of our state’s most famous sons, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, are the individuals most responsible for defeating that revolt.
Illinoisans died at places like Gettysburg and Shiloh so that flag and all that it represents would not prevail.
I’m the descendent of men who fought for both the North and the South. I fully acknowledge that both are part of my heritage. But not all things in our heritage are worthy of deification.
And the Confederacy certainly isn’t.
One can only hope that the Confederate-flag flying pickup driver learns this.
For I’m certain that the thousands of men and women encamped in Springfield this past week already know that.
– Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.