Some flag context

Democratic state Rep. Charles Blake has been re-thinking his party’s wisdom when it enacted a 1987 law formally describing the meaning behind the stars on our state flag.

The specific language the Democratic sponsor and majority incorporated into the state flag statute was “The blue star above the word ‘Arkansas’ is to commemorate the Confederate States of America.”

In 1987, Democrats held 91 out of 100 state representative seats, and 31 out of 35 state Senate seats. Democratic Gov. and future U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the law.

The original need for a state flag arose in 1910 when construction began on the USS Arkansas battleship. Eponymous state naval vessels typically flew their local colors alongside Old Glory, so the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in Arkansas encouraged a flag design contest.

DAR member Willie Hocker’s design was selected and modified in 1913 to feature three blue stars in the white field: one above and two below the state name. In 1923, a fourth star was added, but in an awkward-looking two-over-two arrangement. A year later it was revised to the existing design, with a single star above the name, and three stars below.

In 1924, Democrats held 97 of 100 seats in the state House, and all 35 seats in the state Senate. The genesis and perpetuation of the lone star above the name commemorating Arkansas’ CSA heritage is as deeply azure as a blue state can get.

From the CSA commemoration until 1980 only one Republican was ever elected to the state Senate, and for 36 of those 66 years Democrats occupied 98 or more seats in the state house, and never fewer than 94. In the 32 years since establishing the CSA homage as law in 1987, Democrats were the majority in the General Assembly for 22 of them. As late as 2010, Democrats still held 72 of 100 state representative seats and 20 of 35 in the state senate.

The entire time during which our state flag and its CSA commemoration was created, described anecdotally and engrossed statutorily, the state was controlled by nothing less than an invincibly dominant Democratic dynasty.

The Arkansas flag’s Confederate connection is there because Democrats wanted it there, put it there, and kept it there. For all those years the Democrats were the party with supermajority power, they never felt obliged to remove it.

Not in the midst or aftermath of the Central High School episode. Not during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s. Not even during those terms when they held every single seat in the General Assembly.

Not once in all those prolonged decades. And, even if we discount the shameful Dixiecrat-era influence, not in the first 10 years of the 21st century.

That record suggests abject political apathy on the subject, which is probably pretty close to what it was. As long as they held commanding state government majorities, Democrats didn’t give a flip about that star or its CSA genealogy.

Perhaps trying to blame and shame Republicans for not rushing to do now what Democrats carelessly didn’t do for 100 years passes for political strategy these days. The timing reveals a lot about the real bottom line of Blake’s “feel good” revisionist bill to remove the CSA language: It’s nothing but pandering theatrics intended to incite some teapot tempests.

Revising the obscure symbolic wording behind a solitary star on the state flag into some other wording equally obscure in the public conscience is pointless. If Congress decided to declare that the arrows clutched by the eagle on the American Seal suddenly celebrated archery rather than war, it wouldn’t change the reality of the original design. Or the history behind it.

Our legislators don’t need to feel better by trying to rewrite history. They need to do better.

Neither this silly flag bill nor the ensuing contretemps about it will solve any social problem, provide assistance to any needy citizen, or improve the overall standard of living.

It offers no deliverables whatsoever in terms of public-service efficiency, private-sector productivity or collective community safety. It tackles none of the intractable social maladies faced disproportionately by minorities such as poverty, illegitimate births, fatherless families, lagging educational achievement, stunted economic opportunity and intraracial crime.

That may be partly why Democrats left the flag and its innocuous Confederate reference alone for all those years. It never mattered against the larger task of effective governing.

The years spent under Spanish and French dominion are nothing any Arkansan wishes to return to, and neither is the time as part of the CSA.

I suspect most people never knew the story behind any of the stars and couldn’t care less now that they have learned it. But they do care about real social issues and challenges crying out for legislative leadership and solutions. Opportunistic political gimmickry like this only saps our partisan capital resources and divisively distracts our attention.

Arkansas Democrats had countless chances throughout a century of ruling authority to change the Confederacy commemoration of that star, right up to 2010.

The statute of limitations for their belated false piety on the matter has expired.


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