Memorial Day, officially a day to honor Americans who died in war, has more broadly come to symbolize the unofficial start of summer. Many Americans will take a trip to the beach, barbeque or just enjoy a day off from work.
Now there is an effort to create a new tradition — burning the Confederate flag.
The movement is being led by John Sims, an artist in Sarasota, Florida. Sims started the initiative last year when he organized confederate flag burnings in 13 cities across the South.
The events were relatively small but generated fierce opposition from groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and significant media attention.
This year, Sims is upping the ante. One factor that reduced participation, he says, was that many people who were interested did not want to go out and purchase a Confederate flag. This year he’s created a downloadable “Burn and Bury” kits that allows people to print out their own Confederate flag at home, suitable for burning.
Sims will also be broadcasting this year’s activities live online.
ThinkProgress talked with Sims about how he got started, the reaction so far and his plans for the future.
What gave you the idea to mark Memorial Day by burning the Confederate flag?
Well, I started working on the Confederate over 15 years ago, as an art project, first by recoloring it red, black and green for the black nationalism colors.
Then in 2004, I presented my piece, The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag, in Gettysburg. This was an installation of the flag hanging from a noose. Then in 2015, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I organized a 13-state Confederate Flag funeral across the south.
Then the Emanuel A.M.E Church shootings happened. This inspired a call for Burning and Burying the Confederate Flag on 4th July 2015.
The strong response of Burn and Bury event and the continued support for the rebel flag lead me to think about doing this as annual event.
What kind of reaction did you get to last year’s activities?
Well, we had 13 events, one for each state represented by the stars in the flag. Each event was led by a team comprised of artists, poets and activists. We had widespread media coverage, participation by artists and activists and enough counter-voices to keep things interesting.
What do you make of groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans who say it is offensive?
The Sons of Confederate Veterans have been my nemesis since the Gettysburg installation. So I expect them to be offended, the way I expect old slave masters in the 1850 were offended by the abolition movement or runaway slaves.
These groups have failed to recognized the unredeemable nature of the Confederate flag as symbol of Southern heritage. And to deny this flag’s connection to American white supremacy and fear of the loss of white privilege is insane. I challenge the Sons of Confederate Veterans to come correct and acknowledge that the Confederate flag should be retired as an artifact. And after that they should help advocate for reparations for slavery.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this year’s activity? Do you view it primarily as an artistic endeavor or do you have specific goals as an activist?
This year the work has moved more into an activist zone without losing the art dimension. While art is a very vital language in opening up the conversation, the political process and psychological/emotional transformation are where the penetrating work needs to happen.
This is why it is important to make the Burn and Bury Memorial an annual event. It is a way to ritualistically confront through reflection and catharsis, the pain and trauma of a very horrific part of American history.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.