It took two days after the Charleston shootings for David Goldfield’s office phone to begin ringing nonstop, but he knew the media eventually would come calling.
Following the June 17 massacre, Goldfield, a UNC Charlotte history professor and Civil War expert, has spent many of his hours in front of cameras, behind microphones and on his telephone talking with journalists.
“It started Friday,” said Goldfield. “The first ones were CNN and ABC News.” National Geographic, ESPN, the BBC and a flurry of others followed, their questions centered around the Confederate battle flag.
Goldfield said the sheer number of reporters emailing and calling caught him by surprise.
“Any time the Confederate battle flag issue comes up, they’ll usually call me,” he said. “Certainly, I didn’t think it would be this volume.
“Of course, this particular flag controversy was preceded by a great tragedy, which the others were not.”
On June 17, 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine parishioners in the historic African-American church.
Not long after, images of Roof surfaced holding the Confederate battle flag.
The pictures sparked a media frenzy from inside and outside the country. Journalists began calling Goldfield to inquire about the flag’s history and to try to understand the emotions the images evoked among flag opponents and supporters.
For decades, the Confederate battle flag has been in a terse tug-of-war between those who view it as symbol of white supremacy and others who deem it a mark of Southern heritage.
For Goldfield, the true symbolism is obvious. He has spent the last few weeks explaining his point on-air and dispelling myths. A lot of people, he said, believe the Civil War was fought to protect states’ rights, and that the right to own slaves was just one among many.
“That’s just not true,” Goldfield said. “The state right that was most important to the Confederacy was the right to own slaves.”
He added that the Confederacy probably would be surprised by today’s questioning of Confederate intentions. “If you read the ‘Ordinance of Secession,’ right up front, it says they’re seceding because they are protecting the institution of slavery.”
Although he hears a lot of the same questions from reporters, Goldfield said, he often sees a different line of questioning between Northern and Southern interviewers that’s divided like a journalistic Mason-Dixon Line.
Reporters either from or based in the North or Midwest seem baffled by the flag’s physical presence in contemporary times, he said, and usually start their line of questioning there. Goldfield recalled his recent interview with ESPN broadcaster Mitch Albom
“Albom, of course, is a good northern Jewish boy, and he was just totally mystified, as many reporters have been,” Goldfield said. “He said, ‘What’s going on here? The war is over. Why are they flying the flag, especially when it’s so obnoxious to a portion of the population?’”
A public opinion poll by CNN in 2015 showed that 57 percent of Americans viewed the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Southern pride and not racism. For decades in the South, it has flown alongside the American flag on front porches, been marched down the streets during hometown parades and, until recently, flown on the South Carolina Capitol grounds.
But for those who view the flag as a symbol of racism, it’s a painful reminder of the racial hatred that once existed, and still exists, among some Americans.
Other reporters, like CNN anchor Fredericka Whitfield, skipped the “why?” angle, instead diving right into other facets of the controversy that questioned “what” and “how.”
“She was African-American, and of course, she knew why the flag was flying,” said Goldfield. “So we didn’t have to deal with that.”
Goldfield has tried to do all of the interviews, barring a few where time zones would have required him to be coherent at 3 a.m. Another interview, with MSNBC, was bumped for breaking news out of Baltimore.
“I’m committed with getting the story out there,” Goldfield said. “There’s so much myth surrounding Southern history and the flag. I’m also interested in having my kids and grandkids grow up in a better society, and we do that by understanding our history.”
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Goldfield has written several books on the Civil War and issues that have arisen from it: www.davidgoldfield.us.