It’s true: As San Francisco mayor, Dianne Feinstein did repeatedly fly a Confederate flag in front of City Hall

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Richard Bradley, dressed in a Union soldier’s uniform, cuts down the Confederate flag from atop the 50-foot pole in front of San Francisco City Hall, April 15, 1984.

To the editor:

The San Francisco Bay View has been falsely accused of retailing fake news for publishing the article “1984: Confederate flag of slavery taken down from San Francisco Civic Center – 3 times!” (Aug. 2, 2015). The article first appeared in the July 10, 2015, issue of Workers Vanguard (WV), the newspaper of the Spartacist League, under the headline, “We Tore Down the Flag of Slavery!”

These events were reported at the time not only in our paper but also in newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Oakland Tribune, Los Angeles Times and USA Today, as well as the national Black press, including the New York Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender and Oakland Post.

Apparently, once again, supporters of Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein are determined to write out of history the fact that, as mayor of San Francisco at the time, she infamously fought to keep the flag of slavery and KKK race terror flying in front of City Hall. One tack is to claim that the flag was taken down in 1964 and therefore the events described in the article never happened at all.

A slightly less crude approach is taken by a Feb. 27 post on snopes.com, the “fact checking” website of Snopes Media Group (one of whose directors is a former Wall Street Journal executive). Snopes admits that militants of the Spartacist League and Labor Black League for Social Defense took down this incitement to genocide in 1984, but rates as “unproven” that Feinstein had anything to do with it being there.

They say, “The Confederate battle flag was only replaced once in April 1984, not repeatedly” and that “it’s not clear that Feinstein herself, as opposed to another city official or even a rogue employee, was responsible for its replacement.”

As a crowd of activists watch, Black Spartacist League representative Richard Bradley climbs the flagpole at the San Francisco Civic Center to rip down the Confederate battle flag. Mayor Feinstein insisted Bradley be prosecuted and make restitution for destroying the flag.

Snopes in all seriousness quotes Thomas Malloy, then general manager of the city’s Recreation and Park Department, saying that a Confederate flag was put up the third time “quite by accident”! Snopes does not mention that Doris Ward, a Black member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, found this statement as unbelievable as we did, declaring: “I do not accept that it got up there inadvertently” (Oakland Tribune, July 6, 1984).

The story does start in 1964. But this only underscores that Feinstein knew exactly what she was doing. At that time, the Civil Rights Movement was raging across the country. The Confederate battle flag flew over the Alabama statehouse of George “segregation forever” Wallace and the KKK brutally murdered three civil rights workers in Mississippi. Mass mobilizations against racist discrimination had shaken San Francisco.

In June 1964, a display of “historical flags” went up in San Francisco Civic Center including the KKK Confederate battle flag. Within days, Mayor John Shelley, a Democrat, was inundated with demands to take down this “badge of slavery,” as documented recently by Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle (Aug. 25, 2017).

On July 12, 1964, during a 40,000-strong civil rights demonstration protesting the Republican Party convention then taking place in the city, activists pulled it down and put it in the trash where it belonged (San Francisco Examiner, July 13, 1964). It had to be removed two more times, as Shelley kept putting it back up. Finally, in late August, Shelley substituted the lesser-known official Confederate “Stars and Bars,” which stayed up for a number of years. (See San Francisco Examiner, issues dated July 25, Aug. 22 and 28, 1964, May 2, 1967).

In 1964, Dianne Feinstein had already been active in San Francisco’s Democratic Party politics for several years. By 1981, Feinstein had become mayor herself.

Confederate-flag-waving Klan and Nazi terrorists, emboldened by Ronald Reagan’s racist reaction and war drive against the Soviet Union, were on the offensive. At a 1981 Memorial Day ceremony, Feinstein presided over the re-installation of the Confederate battle flag in Civic Center as part of a set donated by the Bechtel corporation, at Feinstein’s request, to replace the original flags (Oakland Tribune, April 19, 1984).

The flag was burned by a member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6 as “a crowd of Black people, trade unionists and socialists broke into jubilant cheers, and a chorus of ‘John Brown’s Body’ rang out,” wrote Workers Vanguard in a story republished by the Bay View in 2015.

“San Francisco is proud to fly these flags where both visitors and residents alike may see and appreciate the more than 200 years of America’s rich history which they symbolize,” she declared, as reported by the May 21, 1981, San Francisco Examiner.

It did not take long before complaints started coming in to the office of Supervisor Doris Ward. Local 6 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) passed a motion demanding that the racist banner come down. It did come down in 1982 for a mass labor rally to get out the vote for the Democrats, but went back up within a week (see “Black Militant Puts Dixie Flag on Trial,” WV No. 357, June 22, 1984).

On April 15, 1984, Black Spartacist League representative Richard (Ritchie) Bradley donned a Civil War Union Army uniform, scaled the 50-foot flagpole and ripped the flag of slavery down. Cheered on by protesters, Pete Woolston, a member of the ILWU Local 6 General Executive Board, burned it. Both Bradley and Woolston were arrested.

Like Shelley 20 years earlier, Feinstein put the flag right back up. After Bradley ripped the second flag to shreds the next day, he was arrested again (WV No. 353, April 27, 1984). Recreation and Park Manager Malloy declared that “he will continue to fly the Confederate flag until or unless the Board of Supervisors orders it down” (San Francisco Examiner, April 17, 1984).

In 1984, the Democratic National Convention was coming to town and Feinstein was angling for a spot on the Democratic Party ticket as vice president. To that end, she was eager to “make San Francisco safe for the neanderthal Strom Thurmond types and the (then) current George Wallacites, her Dixiecrat brothers-in-arms who will soon be arriving,” as we put it at the time (WV No. 358, July 6, 1984).

After an appeal by Supervisor Ward, Feinstein grudgingly agreed not to put the KKK flag up again. But the city pressed charges against Bradley. As Colin Kalmbacher, writing on the website Law & Crime (Feb. 27, 2018), put it: “Feinstein’s office worked with San Francisco’s then-District Attorney Arlo Smith on the prosecution. Of particular concern to Feinstein was that Bradley make ‘restitution’ to the City of San Francisco for the destroyed flag.”

Bradley demanded his day in court to put Feinstein on trial for defending the flag of slavery.

On April 29, Bradley climbed the now-bare pole a third time to raise a replica of the garrison flag flown at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in 1861, when it was attacked by the slaveowners’ Confederacy in the first battle of the Civil War (San Francisco Examiner, April 30, 1984).

A San Francisco police officer watches the flag burn.

Feinstein was furious. At Bradley’s trial, the vice-mayor testified that Feinstein had personally ordered the Fort Sumter flag taken down the next day and delivered to the mayor’s office, only to be shredded and thrown away (WV No. 357, 22 June 1984).

After Bradley’s trial ended on June 4 with the jury deadlocked eight to four for acquittal, the DA moved to dismiss all the charges. But Feinstein wouldn’t let it rest. She had promised to replace the Confederate battle flag with the “California Hundred” flag of the volunteers from the state who fought against slavery in the Civil War.

Instead, just as Shelley had done 20 years earlier, she had the Confederate “Stars and Bars” run up the bare pole at the end of June, on the eve of the Democratic convention. An “accident”? Let the reader judge. In the early hours of June 29, a group of trusted union brothers cut down the whole pole (WV No. 359, 20 July 1984). Their commendable act finally put an end to Confederate flags flying in San Francisco Civic Center.

This history shows how race terror and its flag are woven into the fabric of capitalist society in the U.S. The Civil War that ended chattel slavery, together with the brief period of radical Reconstruction that followed, were the last progressive acts of a capitalist class that requires the racist oppression of Black people to maintain its rule.

The Democratic Party is historically the party of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. It remains today one of the two main parties running this racist, capitalist order. The Spartacist League sees the fight for Black freedom as central to the fight for workers power in the U.S. That’s why we say “Finish the Civil War! For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!”

To learn more, readers can visit the Workers Vanguard website at icl-fi.org, where a more recent article, “Confederate Flag in Dianne Feinstein’s Attic” (issue No. 1130, March 23, 2018) is posted. The events of 1984 are fully documented in issues of WV published that year dated April 27, May 11, May 25, June 8, June 22, July 6, July 22 and Sept 14. They can be accessed through the website’s “archives” link and are also available in bound volumes.

Bay Area Spartacist League

Contact the Bay Area Spartacist League at slbayarea@fastmail.net.

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