OPinion

On March 7, Rep. Charles Blake (D) filed House Bill 1736 which would redesignate the symbols on the Arkansas state flag. Blake’s proposal, if passed, would alter the state flag so that the star above the state name would symbolize the heritage and history of the Native American nations that once lived in Arkansas, as opposed to the star’s current Confederate designation.

This is Blake’s second attempt to change the symbolism on the state flag this year. His first resolution was was struck down in a House committee in February. However, it is noteworthy that Blake’s revised bill is slightly different than his first and might therefore stand a real chance at passing into law. This would signify a marked improvement in the way that the Arkansas flag represents its state’s values in the modern era.

Additionally, though, the proposed changes within HB 1736 are relatively minor and easily overlooked. The bill does not propose to change anything about the flag aesthetically, after all. It only slightly alters the encoded symbolism within the flag’s current design.

The proposition seems to have a strong chance at passing, though. HB 1736 has recently gained the blessing of Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who has stated that there “is no need” to recognize Arkansas’ former membership in the Confederacy, and that it would be better to recognize the Native peoples that previously governed Arkansas. Regardless of the Hutchinson’s approval, this gesture is a step in the right direction and a respectful reflection on Arkansas’ often brutal history.

Arkansas’ secession from the U.S. and subsequent participation in the American Civil War was one of the darkest periods in the history of the state. It was a savage conflict that split the nation along social and economic lines in order to preserve man’s right to brutalize, exploit and own their fellow man.

There’s little ethical nuance to be had on this subject, and while Arkansas alone is hardly to blame for the conflict, we share the same stain on our history as the other 10 Southern states that seceded over the possible abolition of slavery.

There’s an inherent issue of race and representation as well. The current Arkansas flag honors the Confederates who fought against the abolition of slavery in the Civil War but not the people that suffered under that very institution.

Every time the flag flies, we send a disturbing message about who is and isn’t part of our state’s history, and by changing the symbolism encoded in the flag, we can at least partially right these wrongs.

On the other hand, there are also legitimate historical concerns to raise about changing the flag. Removing the Confederate symbolism could be seen as bad faith historical revisionism, whitewashing and covering up an admittedly awful but significant portion of Arkansas’ history.

This same concern sometimes emerges in discussions over statues depicting Confederate generals and officials. Ultimately, though, changing the star’s designation makes it much more accurate.

As a result, improved representation of the Native American nations that lived in Arkansas should be seen as a win for the state and its flag. The three stars under the Arkansas inscription, those unaffected by Blake’s proposal, currently represent France, Spain and the U.S. the three countries that governed Arkansas.

That ignores, obviously, the fact that a handful of Native nations — the Caddo, Cherokee, Osage, Quapaw and Tunica/Biloxi — lived in the area successfully for thousands of years before being forcibly displaced westward beginning in the early 1800s. In contrast, the Confederate States of America only existed for a few years and was destroyed in the aftermath of the civil war. It’s hardly worthy of its own star.

Blake’s bill is long overdue. It rights the wrongs of the past by eliminating dated symbolism and shows the more tolerant side of Arkansas while also presenting a more accurate and inclusive history of the state.

While the first attempt may have failed, and it is unclear if the current proposal will pass in the current legislative session. Blake should be introducing his bill to a House committee next week. If it is received better than the previous bill, the proposal might eventually encourage Arkansans to reflect on how they want their flag to represent them going forward.

 

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