-->A Sketch of the History of the American, Confederate, and Related Flags
The American Revolution was fought, first under a variety of flags representing different colonial governments or carried by different colonial armies, then under a flag representing the newborn country. None of those flags became an official flag of colonies in a region or of the colonies as a whole or of the nascent government which emerged during the war. The Confederacy had a government flag, and separate state or regional Confederate armies had military flags. After the Civil War, most Confederate government and military flags fell into disuse, but General Robert E. Lee’s fame led Southern states to adopt the battle flag of his Army of Northern Virginia as the symbol of their lost cause. Post-war, quasi-guerilla groups like the James brothers and the emergent Ku Klux Klan wore or displayed at a sign of their recalcitrance.
As the Civil Rights Movement took shape and gathered strength after the Second World War, Confederate symbols emerged first in the South and later in areas to which large numbers of southerners had migrated (western Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, and northern California and Nevada; and Rust Belt cities like Detroit) to express resistance. In 1948, the Dixiecrat Party, created in opposition to President Truman’s integration of the armed forces, made use of Confederate symbols but did not fly a Confederate flag. In 1961, led by South Carolina, the birthplace of the Confederacy 100 years earlier, several Southern state governments, adopting Lee’s battle flag as a symbol of resistance to the drive for racial equality, displayed it on or near state capitols and on license plates. In 1968, George Wallace’s presidential candidacy signaled the success of the Republican “Southern Strategy,” with Lee’s battle flag appearing at his campaign rallies. It reflected and reinforced the views and values of the white Southern majority and others who still sympathized with Confederate views and values. Lee’s battle flag continued to signify both rebelliousness against the federal government and racism.
This historical sketch permits two obvious inferences. One, its revival as a sign of resistance to federal actions supporting racial equality invests the flag with the same primary values which it originally symbolized: rebellion and racism. Two, the nearly century-long gap between the use of any official or military Confederate flag and the modern revival of a battle flag discredits the idea that families fly it out of respect for their ancestors, most of whom did not fight in Lee’s army. After the gap and its revival, Lee’s battle flag became the symbol of diverse groups and individuals like the KKK, the Aryan Nation, bike gangs, and loners. More than anything else, it is associated with, if it is not an incitement to, violence, usually racist violence.
The Other Meanings of the Confederate Battle Flag
Different people give different meanings to the Confederate flag, but these imputed meanings are euphemisms to evade its original and abiding meanings. An analysis of these dodges reveals the root meanings of the flag as a symbol of rebellion and racism.
The first and most common euphemism is “the Southern way of life,” a meaning identified only in terms agreeable to whites and unacceptable to blacks. It smacks of nostalgia for a romanticized vision of the plantation south, of cotton and slaves, of parasols, verandas, bourbon (and branch water) or mint juleps. It skips the grinding deprivations of white Appalachians, with or without slaves, for many of whom the defense of white racial superiority alone was sufficient reason to support the rebellion. It skips the brutalities and degradations imposed on slaves: forced labor, forced sex, whippings, lynchings. It perpetuates itself in the names of athletic teams and cheerleading squads, and songs like “Dixie” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” It is a code-word phrase for a way of life based on beliefs in a natural order of white political and economic domination and white racial superiority.
The second euphemism is family pride in ancestors claimed to have fought bravely in the front lines of the battles in the Civil War. For some reason, the implausibility of most of these claims goes unquestioned. Taken together, they imply that no one’s ancestors paid, fed, or clothed the troops, managed arsenals and supply depots, guarded railroad lines, drove supply wagons, rounded up conscripts, or hunted down deserters. Yet many families who claim that ancestors fought and perhaps died in the Civil War assert that displaying the Confederate Flag honors their bravery and sacrifice in combat. Even so, despite my doubts, displaying the flag does not vindicate their cause. Moreover, it raises questions about honoring those who died in the bad causes of rebellion and racism.
In this context, the comparison with Nazis and the many Germans who supported the Nazi regime is entirely appropriate. Today’s Germans do not honor the Nazi regime; the Nazi or other German troops who fought in it, especially those who fought the Russians on the Eastern Front; or the Master Race doctrine, which motivated both concentration and death camps, and the invasions of Eastern Europe. Indeed, honoring anything Nazi and publicly displaying Nazi symbols are outlawed. The comparison of Nazis and Confederates favors the Nazis. For Nazis were loyal Germans fighting on behalf of Germany; Confederate soldiers were rebels fighting against the United States. Whatever their bravery in a treasonous and racist cause deserves no veneration but gets it from those who endorse treason or racism. Germans do not celebrate Nazi ancestors because they were brave in a bad cause; likewise, Americans should not celebrate Johnny Rebs.
The third euphemism is state rights, a concept historically reflecting one side of a creative tension between federal and state governments. Constitutional provisions, court interpretations, and the outcome of the Civil War have established the supremacy of the federal government, within limits flexible and variable from time to time. However, when the battle flag is used to symbolize state rights, it signifies the supremacy, not of state over federal rights on any of a variety of issues, but of state opposition to the civil rights of individuals. For only in the South or among those tracing descent to the South is the Confederate flag a symbol of state rights. By contrast, the “Sagebrush Rebellion” in the west-central Great Plains of the 70s and 80s did not use it to symbolize its complaints about federal control of western lands and own-state disregard of underpopulated areas.
Before the Civil War, southern states asserted only two state rights: the right to protect the property interests of the owners of slaves, people regarded, by virtue of their imputed inferiority, as property; and the right to promote the theory and practice of white superiority. State rights in the South thus defended a system giving white people the property right of possession and exploitation of black people based on a doctrine of racial supremacy. In the decades during and after the Civil Rights Movement, Lee’s battle flag was a public symbol of states rights now asserted to hinder or prevent racial integration, voting by blacks and other minorities, equal treatment under the law (Jim Crow laws), and inter-racial marriage. In short, state rights is a phrase, less for state rights vis-a-vis the federal government on public issues, than for state powers to curtail the rights of private citizens in a minority.
The Reason Why Today Is Different from Yesterday
The difference between the murder of nine blacks in a Charleston church by a white supremacist and multiple church murders and other outrageous killings, some in black churches, is that times have changed. Cultural lag, the difference between lingering societal norms and actual evolving patterns of belief and behavior, has kept many from recognizing the scope and size of the changes. Until this event, probably a majority of Americans accepted the Confederate flag as a symbol of a glorious history of a gracious South, an idealized vision of plantation life based on King Cotton and built on plantation slavery. This traditional story succeeded by its appeal to a virtuous agrarianism, all the stronger in conservative areas, where resentment at the federal government simmers, where racism is rife, and where both are abetted by conservative politicians who benefit by stoking white fears of lost power. Even urbanites had some sympathy for this story because of traditional American anti-government sentiment and their urban discontents. But the day of such political indulgence is over; the romantic story of an ante-bellum, agrarian South defended by neo-chivalric cavalry and heroic troops ground down by conscripted office workers supplied by a commercial and industrial North is ending.
A population in which aggregated minorities are becoming a majority is replacing a white majority; has little or no experience of, or respect for, rural life; and no longer tolerates racism or its consequences. Not blinded by the romantic version of Southern history, the majority of minorities and many whites recognize the connection between the Confederate battle flag, and political intransigence and racism. They repudiate the connection and are leading the widespread demand to remove Confederate flags, images, and statuary—anything attaching honorific meaning to the democratically subversive and the morally repugnant—from the public square. They do not believe that relegating such mementos to museums will be the end of racism, but they rightly believe that it is a first step. And they know that those who continue to fly or flaunt Lee’s battle flag identify themselves as traitor-sympathizers and racists.
The North, though it punished the South in Reconstruction, did not treat the losers as the traitors which they were; and it did not attack racism, because most whites, north and south, were racist. Many north and south still are, though racism is so silently pervasive that they may not know it or recognize it in themselves. The problem of the larger, more pervasive, and more pernicious legacy of racism everywhere is a legacy of structural discrimination in education, employment, and housing. Removing honorific symbols removes the symbols which divide us—the end of the beginning. The beginning of the end is a re-dedication to non-discrimination in education, employment, and housing, and thereby realizing the principles of equality, liberty, and justice for all. The sooner Americans can dispense with the Confederate story and symbol of un-American rule and race, the sooner they can fly America’s flag in justifiable pride in its democratic government which treats all people fairly under the law and which tries, however fitfully, to serve them all.