Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why the Confederate Flag Flies

Over the past week, I have been carefully reflecting upon the tragic events surrounding the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  As one who has visited Charleston on numerous occasions to revel in its rich history and culture, words can barely express the degree of sorrow I feel over the circumstances.  My regret comes not only from the loss of human life but in acknowledging the legacies of our nation's original sin as they continue to haunt us.  Needless to say, these last days have been steeped in symbolism, historical repetition, and tragic irony.

As many have undoubtedly heard in the news, the AME Church that came under attack boasted a long tradition of defiance in the face of racial adversity ranging back to the days of slavery.  Sadly, the pattern was repeated last week.  Shooter Dylann Roof's embrace of the Confederate flag in photos exhibited by the press scratched open the unhealed wounds stemming from our unresolved dilemmas of the Civil War.  The redundant "heritage versus hate" debate has reignited in southern statehouses and on cable news.

The southern cross is the most divisive symbol in American history--and rightfully so.  The banner is a painful token of the nation's darkest ideals, representing not only the Confederacy but a century and a half of touting white supremacy in its various forms.  As one who has studied the Civil War most of my life, I can also attest to the different interpretations of the flag spanning across racial, cultural, and Geo-political stances.  I have made acquaintance with many a history buff who devoutly perceive the flag as a symbol of southern honor and utilize it to pay homage to rebel ancestors.  At the same time, this is a one dimensional view of a multifaceted image.

Much of the problem permeates from the Lost Cause tradition--the troublesome rewriting of southern history after the war that removed Confederate guilt or association from slavery.  Ex-Confederate leaders, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens chief among them, quickly changed their tunes in the postwar era to proclaim their war as a crusade against tyrannical Federal power.  (All this was said despite Stephens years earlier stating that slavery was the "cornerstone" of their civilization.)  The Lost Cause mythos was handed down to subsequent generations and a vast number of Americans today still believe slavery had no influence in igniting America's deadliest conflict.

Confederate cavalryman John Singleton Mosby was one southern officer who did not abide by this widespread revision of historical fact.  In 1907, he angrily but correctly wrote, "People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war--as she said in her Secession proclamation--because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. . . . I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery--a soldier fights for his country--right or wrong--he is not responsible for the political merits of the cause he fights in. The South was my country."

Mosby's words cut right to the chase.  One only needs to look at Articles of Secession to note that slavery and Lincoln's opposition to its growth were the fundamental factors that led to the creation of the Confederacy.  Argument to the contrary is merely stubborn ignorance--defiance to the inarguable truth.  Mosby's perspective also shatters the notion that Confederate soldiers did not fight for slavery.  True, two-thirds of Confederate troops were too poverty-stricken to own chattel.  Yet, the ideal of the Confederacy offered poor rural farmers the means to someday achieve upward mobility through obtaining human property--creating the supreme "slave empire" as contemporaries referred to it.  Finally, as Mosby accurately attests, a soldier fights for the mission of his country.  Confederates, unless perhaps they were reluctant draftees, fought for slavery's protection and the racial hierarchy that allowed it to flourish.

As to the Confederate flag itself, its imagery was not necessarily perceived as inflammatory in the immediate postwar years.  As historian John Coski notes in the quintessential historical chronicle of the flag, even before the struggle to "end Reconstruction in the South, the Confederate battle flag began to appear in what became its most familiar postwar role--as a memorial and ceremonial symbol. . . . [Veterans] frequently used reproduction and even original wartime battle flags in their rituals.  The earliest and most persistant Confederate celebrations were Memorial Day observances."  In short, such events celebrated youth, grieved loss, and praised southern military leaders.  For a period of time, the flag was perceived less a symbol of defiance and racism but rather loss and defeat.  Confederate veterans utilized the flag at reunions and anchored them alongside the graves of comrades.  This was certainly not to say defeat dampened the traditional racial attitudes of these veterans.  Quite the contrary.  However, their beloved battle flag was not yet widely associated with supremacist tendencies--at least not among white Americans at this stage.

Not until the 20th century did the Confederate flag gain its more divisive attribute.  Even though D. W. Griffith's inflammatory, racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation revived the Ku Klux Klan to unprecedented levels, KKK members typically carried the American flag to rallies and parades.  Not until after World War II, when the Civil Rights movement began in earnest, did the Confederate flag emerge with its ugliest connotation.  It can be found in few lynching photos and record of its use in such a way prior to World War II is sparse.  As Coski continues, "the Ku Klux Klan did not use the Confederate flag with any visibility until the 1940s.  Much to the dismay and outrage of Confederate heritage groups today, no organization has had a greater role in shaping the media's perception of the Confederate flag than the KKK."

Unsurprisingly, the Klan's embracing of the flag coincided with increased Federal intervention in regard to civil rights.  At that moment, the Confederate flag was unfurled to fight new Yankee invaders: integrationists and social reform advocates.  In this context, those who waved the flag in opposition to civil rights exclaimed the same mantra of "States Rights" fabricated a century earlier.  In February 1961, a United Press International brief entitled "Confederate Flag Approved" was printed in newspapers across the country: "The South Carolina House asked in a resolution Wednesday that the Confederate flag fly atop the Capitol along with the American and state flags."

In Alabama, too, the flag became a symbol of resilience to change.  In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy traveled to Montgomery to "push" segregationist governor George Wallace toward an integration platform.  The Auburn Citizen Advertiser reported of RFK's visit on April 24, 1963: "A Confederate flag flew from above the Capitol dome where the Alabama State flag normally hangs.  A floral wreath was laid across the bronze star on the Capitol steps where Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy a century ago. . . . The white demonstrators carried signs identifying some of them with the national States Rights party.  One of the signs said 'Alabama will resist with vigah.'" The Confederate flag became an official means of individual states flaunting their despise of progressive agendas.

This same mentality was conveyed even as George Wallace commemorated the centennial of the Battle of Gettysburg as he wrote to the Gettysburg Times on June 18, 1963: "We must resist regimentation.  Individual liberties must be safeguarded, for without freedom and liberty for each of us, we are traveling down the dead-end road of destructive centralization."  The Confederate flag became synonymous with such rhetoric.  The banner was now truly the embodiment of racism in America.

This was not to say that some southerners were not perturbed by the heinous uses of the flag.  A Uniontown Morning Herald article from December 8, 1965 highlighted this anxiety in a brief entitled "Proper Confederate Flag Use Is Urged."  The report noted, "A group of South Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) wants Southern states to ban commercialization or racial use of the Confederate battle flag.  Wade Hampton Camp 273 adopted a resolution asking state legislatures to ban display of the Confederate battle flag except with the United States flag [for commemorative purposes].  A spokesman for the group said the Ku Klux Klan's use of the Stars and Bars tended to make it a symbol of extremism and sights to the flag by integrationists cause trouble."

In an extreme reversal of this stance, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have since become they key proponents of allowing the Confederate flag to be emblazoned upon license plates and flown on streets.  Just this week, Herb Deloach of the Sons of Confederate Veterans noted, "People have gone nuts over what has been promoted as a racist symbol and it's not a racist symbol. To continue to push that, only pushes us further apart," Deloach said. "That's not going to solve the problem or the root of the problem. Selling our Confederate flag to somebody is not going to solve our race relations problem. Only dialogue and education are going to do that." 

Yet, the commercialization of the flag is what makes it so easy to be distributed and displayed in its most unsavory forms.  If American flag boxers, beach balls, and paper plates are disrespectful to the United States flag, why should the same standard not be applied to the Confederate flag when the southern cross itself is considered an offensive image to many?

The Zanesville Times Recorder reported on May 9, 1967 amid a congressional debate on proper uses of the American flag: One member of the Senate "suggested that while they were at it, legislators should stop Alabamans from flying the Stars and Stripes lower than the Confederate flag."  The same issue is being argued in 2015 as the American and state flags above the South Carolina capitol dome are at half staff while the Confederate flag flies at full staff below.

Northerners also chimed similar sentiments to those of SCV members in the 1960s.  The Lancaster Eagle Gazette noted on July 31, 1963: "An ordinance banning the sale or display of the Confederate flag, except for museums, was advocated Tuesday by acting New York County Liberal party chairman Amos S. Basel.  'The Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery of the Negro,' Basel said."  The lawyer proposed this idea after seeing the flag used by teenagers picketing civil rights outside a Bronx diner.  "The purpose of the flag was to incite people," he continued.  "If they want to use the flag down South on a rebel day, it's alright."  Presumably, a "rebel day" served as substitute language for historical commemorations, reenactments, and memorial ceremonies.  They key word in the above passage, however, is "incite."  This was the ultimate purpose of the Confederate flag in the 20th century and remains so today.

When the redneck pride-associated Confederate "naval flag" was finally removed from the South Carolina statehouse dome in 2000, the middle ground solution was to place the more historically accurate "battle flag" atop a pole beside a Confederate memorial on the capitol grounds.  Dylann Roof's racially-driven rampage in that same state has changed the appropriateness of that decision made fifteen years ago.  Beyond its racial connotations, the Confederate flag should not be officially flown on government property.  It is not appropriate.  I can admire certain facets of the Confederate military.  Many of its leaders were strategically brilliant and many of its soldiers endured extreme hardship on behalf of their cause.  I can earnestly respect that.  However, I cannot reconcile the fact that the Confederate armies attempted to destroy my nation--the only major democracy that existed in 1860s world.  That is unforgivable.

Politicians and pundits have turned out in droves to offer their commentary (or lack thereof) on this ongoing historical and cultural debate in our country.  Most of the Republican contenders for president have been utterly spineless on the issue, including Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz.  "The last thing they need is people from outside of the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve it,” Cruz said.  It is almost as if the ghost of George Wallace has returned to celebrate state sovereignty.  On the flip side, I applaud Republicans such as Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush for taking the morally courageous stand on the issue, using even more powerful language than candidate Hillary Clinton in calling for the flag's removal.

This brings us to another issue of the flag's contemporary use, especially in regard to that all important word "incite."  Invoking the same feeling of anti-government paranoia, historical revisionism, (and the occasional dose of racism) as previous generations, aspects of the Tea Party and media have added fuel to the fires of debate.  When a protester with a Confederate flag stands outside the White House occupied by the nation's first black president, what does that tell us about ourselves?  

Dylann Roof has come of age in a society rife with racial disparity and tension as our country grows increasingly diverse while our judicial system discriminates.  His words uttered before commencing the Charleston shootings were: "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."  The problem here does not revolve around the stability of one individual but the broader narratives of race conveyed in the United States.  I live in central Pennsylvania (in a county Abraham Lincoln won twice) and see rebel flags wave from pickup trucks weekly.  I have heard locals use the n-word in public restaurants.  Part of this ignorance among some Caucasians is perpetuated by the false fear that minorities threaten traditional values in a "politically correct" world of tolerance.  White society must purge itself of this belief.  While Roof is 21 years of age, I have faith in others his age.  Too frequently belittled as the laziest generation, Generation Z is also the most tolerant.

A final point is a cultural one.  Unquestionably, the Confederate flag has also come to represent regional pride, redneck culture, ancestry, and being rebellious.  Dukes of Hazzard actor and former Georgia congressman Ben Jones recently noted, “That flag on top of the General Lee made a statement that the values of the rural South were the values of courage and family and good times. Our beloved symbol is now being attacked in a wave of political correctness that is unprecedented in our nation of free speech and free expression. Activists and politicians are vilifying Southern culture and our heritage as being bigoted and racist. We know that this is not the case. And we know that in Hazzard County there was never any racism.”

There are degrees of truth to this.  Yet, Hazzard County--just like Mayberry--is fiction.  As it turns out, racial strife is not the best ingredient for sitcom ratings.  When it comes to the story of the Civil War and race, more often than not, "political correctness" is also actual "historical correctness."  The flag represents more than family values.  It is not all one thing nor all the other.  This is the complexity of history and how we perceive it.  Society needs to reexamine the banner from a multifaceted perspective.  Even if done in poor taste, the flag can be heralded among individuals to use it for whatever means they like--whether savory or unsavory.  Union soldiers upheld this right of free speech when they defeated the Confederacy and preserved the Union.  At the same time, the irony of flying the flag from government grounds boggles the imagination.  The southern cross does not and cannot represent all people in a state or nation because the slave-holding Confederacy was never meant to do so in the first place.

Other movements have arisen in the past week in urging for the removal of Confederate monuments from parks and universities.  I find this more problematic.  I find there to be a strong difference between reflecting upon the past with centuries-old monuments versus flaunting it with flags we hang.  Monuments and their texts serve as primary sources that offer insight into the perspectives of our ancestors--including the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Demolishing them hinders our ability to scrutinize our history and cheapens the obstacles we have collectively overcome.  Leave the monuments alone.

It's time for the flag to come down.  Hang it in museums.  Use it in reenactments.  Place it on Confederate headstones.  But do not hoist it in front of statehouses meant to represent all the people.  Like John Mosby said, "People must be judged by the standard of their own age."  I think he is right.  While we should all learn from the past, we are not entirely beholden to it.  The actions or ideals of our familial ancestors do not reflect upon us.  This is why the flag should be respectfully retired.  At this moment, the flag's presence says more about us than it does of those in the 1860s.  Let us have the debate.  Let us confront the evils of racism head on, for that is the only means of defeating them.  As comedian Larry Wilmore noted on The Nightly Show, "I get it that plenty of honorable people have fuzzy feelings about the Confederate flag, but that's irrelevant. Their nostalgia will never trump the people who see it as a symbol of hate."  Surprisingly, I think Confederate John Mosby would agree.


  1. Banning slogans, phrases, flags, words, God and symbols puts America on a slippery slope. I agree the "battle flag" of the Confederacy should not be flown on government grounds but people should have the right to fly it without others ascribing heinous motives to them. The First Amendment was put there to protect speech, especially speech most don't agree with. For some groups to try to suppress that right is both arrogant and dangerous. We should be able to debate these complicated issues without being labeled "hater" or "racist". If we treat the First Amendment so lightly, anyone's dissent or opinion on any issue can be suppressed in the future.

  2. Jared: A very well thought out and well written article!! It puts the entire issue into its correct light!! I could not agree with you more than I do!! Well done, Sir!!

  3. Great presentation on cspan. Thanks for your efforts.