One sure way to engender angry reader reaction is to criticize the Confederate flag. Every time, I was inundated with enraged and footnote-studded letters and emails from Georgia, Tennessee, Texas - the whole Old South. Not that it stopped me.
REBEL FLAG IS RED FLAG: WHAT'S PAST IS PROLOGUE
Date: Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B
Byline: HOWARD GOODMAN COMMENTARY
"The past is never dead," William Faulkner wrote. "It's not even past."
All his writing life, the Nobel laureate from Mississippi grappled with the legacies of his native South.
Faulkner didn't write much about Florida. But he would have appreciated a couple of recent news items.
First off, Martin Luther King III explored conditions in Belle Glade over the weekend and concluded that a long history of second-class treatment and intimidation shaped that black community's perceptions of a controversial hanging.
King, who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founded by his illustrious father, talked to residents and leaders of the western Palm Beach County town, where inequalities between whites and blacks almost outdate the sugar cane in the surrounding fields.
Today, in fact, marks the 75th anniversary of the horrendous flood of 1928, where even death followed the pecking order. Almost 700 black victims from the Lake Okeechobee area were buried in a mass unmarked grave in West Palm Beach -- while 69 whites were interred with the dignity of individual grave markers.
As King found out, blacks in Belle Glade still fume over a paucity of economic opportunity (black unemployment is seven times greater than that of whites). There's a persistent distrust of local authorities (though the mayor is black, the police chief and most of the force are white).
"People have been consistently living under a state of fear," King said. "Whether it's realistic or not, it's realistic to them. Historically, people are concerned about intimidation. They say, `If I come and tell the police, then I'm going to be harassed by police.'"
This could have been his father talking 40 years ago in Selma or Montgomery.
A public inquest in July persuaded most people that Feraris "Ray" Golden's death on May 28 was a suicide.
But, according to King, the intimidation factor kept some people from coming forward with evidence supporting suspicions Golden was lynched.
King called for further investigation.
Because the racial history of Belle Glade won't go away, neither will the uneasiness over Golden's death.
Meanwhile, a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans said it's promoting a special Florida license plate featuring the Rebel flag.
The group says it isn't out to antagonize anybody, just to celebrate the good ol' virtues of the good ol' South. As the national headquarters puts it on its Web site:
"The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution."
Liberty and freedom?
Sure, as long as you were white.
The Confederacy's vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, put it succinctly in 1861. Speaking of the breakaway states' brand-new government:
"Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
"This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."
It was clear to its founders what the Confederacy stood for.
It was clear in the 1950s and 1960s, when Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina started waving Confederate imagery over their state capitals to show their contempt for the civil rights
movement and their support for segregation.
The meaning is clear enough to the Ku Klux Klan and the more than 500 other hate groups that use it as a symbol, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A Rebel flag on a Florida license plate wouldn't be the innocent nod to history its promoters contend. It would be a provocation to millions of Floridians and visitors.
This flag's history isn't dead.
It isn't even past.