Giving Ground to Racism
By: Peyton Benge
On August 11 and 12, a roughly two-day long white supremacist rally was held in Charlottesville, VA. The assembly was deemed unlawful and came to a violent halt. By the end of Saturday, there were three people dead, dozens injured and many questions left unanswered. However, the first question that needed to be answered was why this particular event was being held in the first place.
This answer was easy to find. As many may know, the “Unite The Right” rally had begun Friday night when several hundred white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus. The modern day Klan rally came to a climax when the group of white supremacists gathered in Emancipation Park, previously named Lee Park, around a statue of Civil War General Robert E. Lee that is set to be removed due to a decision made by the City Council of Charlottesville. However, currently the council is being sued for this decision, and while the courts view the case, the statue still stands and the country eagerly awaits its decision. While this decision is yet to be concluded, there are simple conclusions that can be drawn from this event that should lead us all to question why any symbolism of the Confederacy is sponsored or memorialized by any state in the Union.
The first of these conclusions is that these Civil War symbols and memorials serve as the final public domain in which Nazis and racists alike feel comfortable enough to express their ideology openly. These spaces are the realms where the vilest citizens of our country feel they still have a minute chance of reverting back the course of American history through a veil of so-called “southern heritage.” So why do we allow our states, the bodies sworn to the allegiance and preservation of our Union, sponsor such divisive and racist symbolism?
This question is particularly important for the state of Oklahoma. Although the 46th state to enter the Union was not recognized as a state during the Civil War, its citizens and visitors for 22 years could find not one, but two flags hanging outside the capitol building that commemorated the dark times of the Confederacy. The first of these was the all too familiar Confederate Battle Flag, however the second and less publicly recognized flag was the Choctaw Nation battle flag that Choctaw Native American soldiers fighting along the Confederacy carried throughout Indian Territory. Both flags hung in a public square named the “Fourteen Flags Plaza.” The plaza was first introduced to the capitol to recognize the fourteen different nations that have flown their flags over Oklahoma territory, but was eventually removed and moved to the Oklahoma History Center, where the Confederate Battle Flag was then replaced by the First National Flag of the Confederacy.
The removal of these flags was a tremendous step forward for the state of Oklahoma to distance itself from a history that is inherently not legitimate “Oklahoma” history, but there are still other minor steps the state should consider taking if it truly wishes to be revered as racially inclusive. As was mentioned the Fourteen Flags Plaza is still in full display at the Oklahoma History Center, but oddly the display is also featured at a museum in Sallisaw, OK. However, at this location the all too familiar Confederate Battle Flag hangs instead of the First National Flag of the Confederacy. This alone should be cause for scrutiny. If these flags are not worthy of being hung on the grounds of our state’s capitol or the grounds of Oklahoma’s premiere historical site, then shouldn’t that set a precedent for all public buildings in Oklahoma?
Another curious point to be made is the multiple versions of this monument. How many times does a state need to memorialize the “Fourteen Flags” that have flown over the course of its history? It seems peculiar that this particular part of our history is being glorified multiple times across our state without consistency in how it should be displayed publicly.
This messaging isn’t simply inconsistent; it seems to neglect each and every single Native American nation that has resided in the state of Oklahoma. Historically speaking, most Native American tribes didn’t typically have national flags and thus this could lead many to believe that flying these flags over the state would be inaccurate in a historic sense. However, if the state is able to recognize the flags of nations that resided in this territory long before its borders were drawn, then it would appear odd that the arguably most relevant nations that were forced to reside in this state don’t receive representation in a monument so highly revered, it was built in three separate locations at one point in time. The flag monument was once apart of the Oklahoma State Fair, but has been replaced with a similar monument like the one displayed in front of the state capitol. If the “Fourteen Flags” of the previous nations that had a presence in this state are so vitally important to hang high for the “preservation” of Oklahoma’s state history, then it seems hypocritical that the many nations currently residing in this state are not included in such an honorable display. It should be noted that the state capitol has a monument that hangs the many flags of the Native American tribes that reside in OK, but dually noted is that this monument is only hung in one location. Does it not deserve to be hung in Sallisaw as well? The Oklahoma State Fair Grounds? The Oklahoma History Center?
Interestingly enough, the Oklahoma History Center has a couple additional predicaments involving its website. On its website, there is a tab labeled “Research Center.” When a person clicks on this tab they are brought to a menu of several different search databases and indexes of historical recordings of Oklahoma. The most concerning of these is the “United Daughters of the Confederacy” tab located under the “Biographies, Family History, and Lineage Groups” section of the “Research Center” page. After clicking on this tab, a person is brought to an application page for the bewildering “various chapters” of the United Daughters located “all over Oklahoma.” The application further explains that women who apply for this group can also receive “awards and honors” for simply proving their lineage to Confederate soldiers. This should go without saying, but no one should be rewarded or publicly acclaimed as honorable on the sole fact of having the ability to prove their lineage to a soldier who was willing to devote their life to fight for the preservation of the racist institution of slavery while also committing the most vile form of treason any American has performed to date. Yet, the State of Oklahoma continues to fund a website that enables this twisted idea.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end here for the Oklahoma History Center’s website. If someone were curious and wished to view the various historic museums located across Oklahoma, their eyes would be first exposed to the state’s only Civil War museum located in Atoka. This certainly wasn’t done on purpose; the list of museums is alphabetized and thus the “Atoka Museum and Confederate Cemetery” naturally falls on top of this list. But what does the Atoka Museum display? The Oklahoma History Center website notes that the museum has many unique exhibits ranging from a “complete skeleton of a dinosaur,” to displays about Atoka County celebrities Reba McEntire and Lane Frost. However, also on this site is a cemetery of Confederate soldiers that were forced to settle in the area after contracting measles. Presumably, a majority of the soldiers died due to the illness and were buried at the location. Although the cemetery obviously can’t be moved, the State of Oklahoma needs to reconsider this mix of cultures. Does the state really wish to have a museum that commemorates famous Oklahomans next to a cemetery in honor of dead racists? Also notable, this cemetery has been a host to many public events and gatherings, which leads to the conclusion of this article.
This piece began with the discussion of the events that happened Friday and Saturday in Charlottesville. As was stated above, the violent and unlawful “Unite The Right” assembly began with white supremacists gathering around a public monument that exhibits the United States’ horrific past. Again, these public spaces are the last areas that racists and Nazis feel completely comfortable displaying their inexcusable ideologies. With this in mind it is important to note that the Civil War cemetery located in Atoka mentioned earlier, has hosted many public events, including children’s Easter egg hunts. Although this assembly could be seen as objectively harmless, it exemplifies the dilemma in having these types of public places. If this cemetery is a location that people feel comfortable taking their kids to hunt Easter Eggs, it is safe to presume that this location is likely to be considered a comfortable meeting ground in the future for the worst Oklahoma has to offer.
This piece was not written to deter peaceful assemblies or suppress Oklahoma citizens’ assembly rights protected under the first amendment of the Constitution. This piece was written to discuss the current truth facing this state and the future actions Oklahoma should consider taking. If Oklahoma wants to distance itself from racist imagery and prevent future violent gatherings like the one that occurred in Virginia yesterday, then it needs to begin removing its sponsorship of the many controversial public spaces located within its borders. Why? Because as we now know, these will be the final battlegrounds where the bigots of our society gather. The only ground that should be conceded by Oklahoma to its domestic terrorists, is the same ground the Confederate soldiers lie in Atoka. Six feet deep, never to be seen again.