Opinion: Detroit lawmaker: Confederate flag mocks Michigan's values

Read the article published on Detroit Free Press: OPINION - Detroit lawmaker: Confederate flag mocks Michigan's values


A monument to Michigan Governor Austin Blair, a celebrated governor who spoke out against slavery and for the rights of women,  served two terms from 1861-1864 during the Civil War was made by Edward Clark Porter of Massachusetts and unveiled on Oct. 12, 1898.

A monument to Michigan Governor Austin Blair, a celebrated governor who spoke out against slavery and for the rights of women, served two terms from 1861-1864 during the Civil War was made by Edward Clark Porter of Massachusetts and unveiled on Oct. 12, 1898. (Photo: Regina H. Boone, Detroit Free Press)


The recent protest in Lansing, Michigan – dubbed “Operation Gridlock” – reminds us that symbols and ideas matter.

What stood out among the protesters on the Michigan State Capitol grounds – ostensibly there to oppose Governor Whitmer's actions  executive orders designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 – was the display of confederate flags and Nazi swastikas meant to suggest the Governor was a fascist. These symbols were unfortunately reinforced when a Michigan state senator wore a mask resembling a confederate flag during session. Although dissent is critical to our public discourse, symbols of hate and ideas that have proven incompatible with our communal values are dangerously counterproductive – especially during a pandemic.

But those divisive symbols also stood in sharp contrast to another symbol on the Capitol grounds – the statute of Michigan’s Civil War Governor, Austin Blair. Friction is created when ideas and symbols that oppose one another suddenly share the same space. And the friction created on that day delivers a teaching moment for all Michiganders on the importance of re-engaging our shared values so that we’ll pull through times of crisis united instead of divided.

Blair for the Union

Austin Blair was Michigan’s 13th governor. Ardently committed to preserving the Union and defeating slavery, he helped raise and deploy more than 30 regiments – nearly a quarter of Michigan's men —  to fight in the Civil War, including in battles at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania.

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In 1895, a year after his death, the Michigan State Legislature appropriated $10,000 to construct a statue recognizing Governor Blair’s contributions. Signatures poured in from across the state advocating that his bust stay in Michigan rather than go to Washington D.C. The statue was erected in 1898 in front of the Michigan’s Capitol building and still stands today. I proudly walk by his statue regularly on my way to the House of Representatives chamber in which I represent the people of House District 2. 


Confederate flag

Confederate flag (Photo: TimAwe, Getty Images/iStockphoto)


The Civil War was our country’s ultimate crisis. But during that time, the flag of the Union served to remind all who fought on Michigan's behalf that a set of shared values – among them liberty and justice for all – united men of varied upbringings, education levels, occupations, and race. On the fields of battle, this stood in contrast to their rebellious countrymen fighting for secession and the continued enslavement of African Americans. In addressing this friction, Governor Blair made his position clear, saying, “He who is not for the Union, unconditionally, in this mortal struggle, is against it.”

The history of our great state helps reveal that the confederate flags waving at the Lansing protest reflect values that in fact oppose the liberty and individual freedom those protesters were demanding from their state leaders.

History has a way of teaching us lessons when we need them most. In times of crisis – when viruses force us into our homes and fill our hospitals with misery and grief – it is often ideas and symbols that help carry societies through. By the conclusion of the Civil War, 90,000 Michigan men fought for our state’s values, and 14,000 never returned home. But symbols, like statues, help remind us how their sacrifice helped shape who we are today. 

Rejecting symbols of hate

We all carry a responsibility to reject symbols of hate – confederate flags and Nazi swastikas – and the ideas attached to them, because they contradict the liberty and rights for which so many have fought and died.

Even as a young nation and a younger state, we vigorously defend the ideas that undergird our shared values, like equality, self-reliance, and hope for our future. I am fully confident we will meet this challenge before us if we ground ourselves in ideas and symbols that keep us united – and memorialize our most important sacrifices – while renouncing those that divert us from harnessing the strength we have in each other. Our past shows us we have done it before, and we will again.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Contact: Joe Tate
Phone Number: (313) 769-8644