The liberty to market a disturbing symbol and the good sense not to

In the beauty of the lilies,

Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom

that transfigures you and me.

As He died to make men holy,

let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on …

So wrote Julia Ward Howe in the heat of the Civil War. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was sung by Union soldiers as they marched to battle, and has endured as a popular patriotic song.

It makes clear the heart of the war. Soldiers fought and died to free black people, people who were wrongly enslaved.

The Civil War, however, did not end the oppression of African Americans. Jim Crow laws in the former Confederate States of America enforced racial segregation. The civil rights movement, finally, in the mid-1960s — a century after emancipation — resulted in federal legislation banning segregation and restoring equal voting rights.

But the legacy of slavery marches on.

A year ago, we wrote about a black woman and a white man who have been on what they call “a healing journey.” They have written a book that describes her as a “daughter of slavery” and him as “a son of the slave trade.”

Sharon Leslie Morgan says she does not think of herself as a victim. But, she says, “I have been trained to look at almost everything through the prism of race … We’re taught to be wary.”

Thomas Norman DeWolf says he was “raised Christian, raised racist.”

The pair spoke in Albany, at the state museum auditorium, during a conference organized by the Underground Railroad History Project.

Her interest in genealogy began in 1969 when her son was born, Morgan writes in the book; she wanted to provide her son with a legacy. “The only thing I could pass on was the resilience I knew had come from our history as slaves,” she writes. “Physical slavery inhibited us from the start. By the time I came along, in spite of cries that ‘Black is beautiful,’ the slavery was psychological.”

We thought of Morgan’s comments last week when we received a letter from members of a group called Hate Spoils the Fun, asking that the Altamont Fair ban the sale and display of Confederate flags.

Todd Dreyer, one of the group’s leaders, told us the group’s goal is to get all 48 members of the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs to ban symbols of hate like Confederate flags, ISIS flags, or Nazi flags.

Dreyer said of the response he got from the Altamont Fair, which serves Albany, Schenectady, and Greene counties, in May, “I would describe it as hostile.”

Dreyer went on, “Individual county fairs are private entities, not arms of county government. Therefore, what happens at their fairs is up to their discretion.”

If the Altamont Fair can prevent the sale of Silly String, knives, and drug paraphernalia, as outlined in its concessionair manual, Dreyer said, it can prevent the sale of Confederate flags.

In 1976, when Dreyer was in high school, he witnessed a rally held by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Chenango County. “I saw an actual cross-burning with people in white sheets and pointed hats,” he said, the memory vivid all these decades later.

While such rallies seemed to have died out in the Northeast, as we saw at Charlottesville, the sentiments of hate, and of white supremacy, often more insidiously spread through hate groups on the internet, are alive and terrifying.

We asked the Altamont Fair’s manager, Amy Anderson, to respond to the letter we are publishing this week. Her response is printed, in full, at the end of the letter.  “The Altamont Fair practices tolerance and inclusion and does not take a stand on political issues,” she concluded.

This is a very different use of the word “inclusion” — meaning acceptance of symbols of racism — than the use employed last year by Richard Ball, New York State’s commissioner of agriculture.

Last August, Ball wrote a letter to each “County Fair Partner” in the state, asking county fairs to join the state in “discouraging vendors at county fairs from selling or displaying items that run counter to our great state’s long history of inclusion for all. New York State stands firm against bias and intolerance of all kinds and our fairs, which are a critical component of our agricultural economy and social fabric of our communities, should represent the very best of New York.”

Similarly, Dave Bullard, a spokesman for the New York State Fair, held each year in Syracuse, wrote, in response to our questions about the state fair’s stance on Confederate flags, “Our state and our Fair represent inclusion and respect for all. The Fair requests vendors to refrain from selling or displaying items that may offend or that could affect public health or safety. Our vendors have always complied with these requests.”

Union soldiers from New York — including the very counties served by the Altamont Fair — died in the Civil War. The Confederate flag is not part of our heritage. Really, it’s not much of a part of Southern heritage either; it was a battle flag, largely obscure after the war.

The Confederate flag, as we now call it — the red square with the blue star-studded Southern Cross, was originally the Northern Virginian battle flag. A rectangular version, most often seen in modern reproductions, was used during the Civil War by the Army of Tennessee.

The first flag of the Confederacy, “The Stars and Bars,” was quite similar to the American flag, with a circle of white stars on a blue field in the upper left corner and three large stripes — a white one between two red ones.

Dreyer, who spends part of each year in North Carolina, notes, “They do not mark the graves of Confederate soldiers with battle flags. They use the first flag of the Confederacy.”

The flag with the Southern Cross was rarely used during the decades following the Civil War. It was revived only during the Civil Rights era to oppose the movement toward equality. As such, it is less a symbol of Southern heritage than it is of white supremacy.

We have long loved the Altamont Fair. Since our childhood, we have joined the throngs seeing farm animals and shows, visiting museums, and enjoying midway rides and games. The fair represents a great mingling of society: Rich and poor, urban and rural and suburban, old and young, black and white and brown and yellow, come together to learn of our agricultural heritage and to enjoy ourselves.

Altamont, for more than a century, has been a welcoming host. Why wouldn’t we want to do what the State Fair and other county fairs have done — request vendors not sell or display Confederate flags — to make everyone feel welcome?

Why would we want to offend some of our guests? Why would we want to encourage hatred or white supremacy? Why would we want to perpetuate what Sharon Leslie Morgan termed psychological slavery?

We urge the Altamont Fair to work with its vendors to ensure that its guests — all of them — feel welcome.

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