Confederate Battle Flag in the New South

image description
Official Confederate Flags published by the United Confederate Veterans, including descriptions and dimentions the battle flag, the Stars and Bars, the national flags from 1863 and 1865 and several navy jacks, pennants, and ensigns.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Official Confederate Flags, 1906. John Minor Wisdom Collection, Box 14, Folder 24 #630. Louisiana Research Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans

Contributors

The question of how to reconcile the separate histories of southerners under the same symbol that is used to inspire some, but celebrate discrimination and oppression of others remains unsolved. Though the Confederate States of America were only in existence for four years, many Confederate ideals, values, and symbols are still deeply interwoven within contemporary southern society. The “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy is the collective and particularly white memory of the southern Antebellum and Civil War eras. Vestiges of the Lost Cause may be seen today still at the numerous memorials throughout the south honoring their rebel ancestors. In conjunction with these memorials, southerners commonly use the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of this Lost Cause and rebellion against authority in general. However as time has gone on, the rebel flag has become an increasing source of controversy due to the implications the flag had during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. [1] Southern politicians, specifically the Dixiecrats, and state governments frequently used the battle flag to promote Jim Crow and maintain segregation. More infamously the flag was used as a symbol of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan. There are still those who contend the flag is merely a symbol of rebellion, of southern heritage and of the honor and bravery of Confederate veterans. Others rebut that it is impossible to separate the more contemporary white supremacist ideologies associated with the flag because of the notorious history of the Klan, as well as the assertion that the Confederacy was fighting for the states rights to keep slavery legal. Though the cleanest solution seems to be simply removing the flag, “eliminating it from view, would be just as wrong as hoisting it atop the highest flagpole in the center of town.” [2]

Dueling Histories of the Battle Flag

First, it is imperative to recognize that there are primarily two distinct eras concerning the meaning of the battle flag. Immediately following the fall of the Confederacy, battle flags were used to symbolize the heroism of Confederate veterans, the valiant rebellion from an over-powerful federal government, and the honor of of lost family and forebears of a common southern heritage. But as time has gone on, memories of the Confederacy have become more removed, while the connotations of rebellion have remained. There are even some who do not recognize the flag as a Civil War symbol at all, but merely as a pop-culture symbol of rebellion against authority. [3] But as more examination is done on the true causes of the Civil War, more contemporary thinking recognizes the threat of abolishing slavery as a more principal cause. Southerners recognized that the removal of slavery would be the removal of a systemic social order predicated on skin color, which would lead to new social and economic structures. Current estimates of the industry slavery created in its era are close to ten trillion dollars, accounting for inflation. [4] It is hard to imagine any current industry of that size with owners and beneficiaries who would willingly give up such an income without a fight. Though there are those who claim the Confederates were solely fighting for states rights, they are very selective in their construction of history. Some southerners go so as far as to argue that the war could not have been about state’s rights at all because John C. Calhoun, the inspiration of secessionist movement, was a nationalist, and even the newly independent states wanted to merge into a southern republic. [5] Although it is difficult to discern the true cause of the Confederate states’ longing for independence, and consequently the meaning of their flag, the second era of the flag’s symbolism during the segregationist movement are hardly debated. Perhaps the most infamous symbol of white supremacists and segregationists, the battle flag was commonly used to invoke feelings of trepidation amongst black citizens. These feelings were validated by the many conspicuous instances of violence, which took place with a battle flag flying nearby, including the fact that the flag was a prominent symbol in many KKK ceremonies during the time of the Civil Rights movement. [6] Hence there arises two different meanings of the flag, with interwoven histories impossible to separate from one another. Despite the fact that there are those who don’t associate racism with the battle flag, there are southern blacks who would wholeheartedly disagree. Lost Cause ideals literally whitewashed southern history by glazing over the negative and oppressive aspects of the Confederacy and by neglecting the black perspective. It is also hard to ignore the partitioned histories, fundamentally along color lines, where race functioned the antithesis of interracial reconciliation because it was both the cause of the war and of the subsequent social, political and economic uncertainty. [7] Southern blacks are some of the most underrepresented groups in history due to the efforts of various white Confederate veterans associations promoting ideas of the Lost Cause. Confederate memorials are overtly based upon these white collective memories, or “the kind of history that mattered.” [8] Southern culture and even economic status has always been inherently separated along color lines, observable from the era of slavery to the strong resistance to civil rights. Though there is evidence that southern blacks wanted to understand white people, the same cannot be said for white southerners who could never seem to understand the ways of black people. [9] These feelings of misunderstanding amongst white southerners are echoed in their approach to the symbolism of the battle flag.

Post-Civil War Uses of the Battle Flag

While the Confederacy fell a century and a half ago, their battle flag continues to fly into the twenty-first century. There was little to no lag in flying the flag after the civil war; it was flown in the Reconstruction era, but being considered contraband, federal troops commonly confiscated it. During the Confederate memorial period, which lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s, the battle flag was used in various Confederate ceremonies and memorials in a strictly historical manner. [10] For instance, many of the Confederate memories are preserved in veterans’ organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which arose during the period. These groups provided a more national celebration of the Lost Cause by providing a safe haven for veterans and those celebrating the Lost Cause. [11] In Nashville, 1906 the United Confederate Veterans held a convention and published a booklet titled Flags of the Confederate States of America. Within these booklets are images and dimensions of the official Confederate flags; the Stars and Bars, the battle flag, the national flags from 1863 and 1865 and several navy jacks, pennants, and ensigns. As printed in the booklets, the primary reason for this sort of publication was to correct erroneous versions of the flags, as well as informing others about the official flags. [12] The progression of the official Confederate flags also shows how they successfully separated their southern identity from their American identity. Their first flag, the Stars and Bars, was very similar and commonly confused with the Union’s Stars and Stripes, and was abandoned as the symbol of the Confederacy after the Battle of Bull Run. In 1863, they adopted a new national flag known as the “Stainless Banner” or “the white man’s flag,” which was all white but for the Southern Cross in the upper left corner. [13] By the end of the Civil War, the battle flag gained notoriety as the prevailing symbol of the Confederacy as well as the implications of a white dominated south. Subsequently during the Second World War was perhaps the first situation where the battle flag was not used for the sole intent of preserving the Confederacy and Lost Cause ideals. Southern soldiers raised the flag on both army bases and naval ships from Europe to Asia. They were principally used to tell other American soldiers that the south was still willing to fight, but more importantly it was a symbol of the modern south. [14] The raising of the battle flag was seen for the first time as a more regional symbol than a strictly historical one. Many southern soldiers carried their own personal battle flags as a reminder of home as well as to distinguish themselves from northerners. [15] In the antebellum period, though it was clear there were many regional differences between the north and the south, there were no nationally recognized symbols available for southerners to identify with. The rebel flag came to provide southerners in WWII with a symbol of cohesion and coherence. Similar to battlefields, American football fields also provided important arenas for the promotion of the flag and regional culture. In the early twentieth century, some southern college football coaches drew parallels to the Civil War by encouraging their team to fight with the same bravery and courage as General Lee had. [16] Currently there is debate as to who were the first college football fans to use the rebel flag, however there is no question that they were used primarily to agitate northerners. As in the case of its use in WWII, the battle flag was used in sight of northerners as a symbol of the contemporary and still rebellious south. Also stemming from the southern college campus, namely the University of Mississippi, came a new, more conservative Democratic Party waving the confederate battle flag and calling for the continuation of a segregated society. In the 1940s, the rebel flag reemerged as a powerful symbolic logo of segregation in response to the building southern opposition to the Civil Rights movement. A new party called the States Rights Party, commonly known as the Dixiecrats, branched out from the Democratic Party and had adamant supporters who incorporated the Southern Cross in their conventions. Though it was not the party’s official symbol, Coski notes the parallels of the flag’s use in the 1860s and the 1940s as the common symbol of defending states rights as a means to preserve white supremacy and the resulting social order. [17] The primary platform of the Dixiecrats was segregation; the party was founded in response to the Democratic Party’s selection of pro-civil rights candidate president Harry Truman as the 1948 primary. In Birmingham, Alabama in 1948, the Dixiecrats elected their candidate Strom Thurmond, whom is most famous for continuously filibustering for 24 hours to save his state from the efforts of the Civil Rights movement. [18] The Dixiecrats reinvigorated the use of the flag in the political arena and encouraged others to associate it with Jim Crow laws. As the flag became more of a symbol of rebellion and segregation than honor after WWII, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy called for the end of the trivializing and dishonoring of the sacred symbol of their ancestors. [19] Despite their pleas, the battle flag became the opposing symbol of the Civil Rights movement, perhaps most infamously as a Klan symbol. The Klan’s adoption of the flag did not come until the era of the Dixiecrats. [20] These groups are commonly referenced only because they gained the most notoriety, but they were just some examples of the common southern perspective. Also furthering the segregation effort, southerners flew the flags in direct response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. [21]

South Carolina

As the first state to secede from the union, it is fitting that South Carolina was also the last state to fly the battle flag over government buildings. Following the removal of the battle flag from the Alabama capitol in 1993, pressure mounted on the palmetto state to remove their flag as well. [22] An important aspect of southern culture has always been the rejection of outsider, specifically northern, opinions as a result of the stigma of the Reconstruction era. This added outsider stress fueled the feelings of rebellion associated with the battle flag, which was also the primary condition under which the flag was raised. In 1962, on the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, South Carolina legislators raised the Confederate battle flag over the state Capitol dome. [23] Though there was not much protest at first, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, and more blacks were elected to office, more efforts were made to remove the flag. The first politician to combat the flag was Kay Patterson, a black man from the Columbia area who was elected as a direct result of civil rights reforms. [24] He continually introduced legislation to the state’s House of Representatives, which is known for some of the South’s oldest and longest serving politicians. The House always shut down his efforts, citing memories of their ancestors. Though his efforts were in vain, they were a starting point for the later increased removal efforts during the early nineties. Primary concerns of the South Carolina legislators’ use of the battle flag were more rooted in the economic rather than social consequences. After losing a bid from an international car company as the location of a new manufacturing plant, businessmen began to question if the symbol was holding back their expansion. [25] Recognizing the possibility of economic turmoil, the National Association of Colored People encouraged consumers to reconsider doing business in South Carolina. With this added economic pressure, the flag was eventually removed from the capitol dome in 2000, and placed at the Confederate monument located on capitol grounds. [26] While a compromise was reached, anti-flag activists argue it was for the worse because the flag was moved to a more prominent location than the less noticeable location on top of the dome. This angered the NAACP, which organized more boycotts and marches for an additional relocation, but these efforts were to no avail. To this day the NAACP serves as the primary opponent of the rebel flag, continually making efforts throughout southern states to eradicate the racist symbol.

Mississippi

Though a few southern states incorporated the Southern Cross into their state flag, the symbol can only still be seen today on Mississippi’s state flag. Despite the criticisms of the flag, the state recently voted by an overwhelming majority to keep the flag. Originally created in 1894, the flag was designed to evoke memories of both the Lost Cause and the Confederacy. [27] The fight to remove the symbol from the Mississippi state flag was invigorated in early 2000 with a series of actions from multiple Mississippian legislatures, and a decision from a 1993 NAACP court case. On April 17, 2001 a referendum was held throughout Mississippi to vote for a new state flag, the date set by the Supreme Court of Mississippi after their decision in 2000 of the NAACP case. [28] After the NAACP had called for the removal of the 1864 flag, the Supreme Court responded that there was no official state flag of Mississippi, as it had not been included in the 1906 Constitution, and it was the responsibility of the legislature to decide, not the Supreme Court. [29] The court’s ruling that there was no official state flag seems to dodge the question rather than recognize that since 1894 the flag flying throughout Mississippi certainly appeared to be the state flag. The referendum in Mississippi provides an important insight to the modern attitudes toward the rebel flag. White voters commonly expressed that not only did they believe slavery put southern blacks at a disadvantage, but also that blacks are a less-abled race. [30] These innate white southern beliefs are exactly why the NAACP still continues to fight for the removal of the symbol so burdened by what can only be seen as oppression. After examining the voting patterns of the referendum, a distinct pattern emerged not surprisingly along color lines. Districts with historically black demographics, such as the delta and “black belt” area voted for a new flag, whereas the more white hills areas received overwhelming support of the old flag. [31] The difference in these voting patterns highlights the continued bifurcation of perspectives about the battle flag along racial lines.

Conclusions

Though the symbol of the Confederacy was used amongst many different groups throughout history, currently the battle flag can be representative of completely separate mindsets: southern heritage, southern sectionalism, nostalgia, the Lost Cause, rebellion against authority, or white supremacy. Being used as a prominent symbol during two of the most crucial and contentious periods in American history, the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, it is nearly impossible to detach any one meaning from the others. Unfortunately, symbolizing such disparate meanings to such different groups seems irreconcilable unless both sides can come to grips with being able to understand the value of choosing to get along, as opposed to taking more hardened stands.

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  • D’Andra, Orey Byron. “White racial attitudes and support for the Mississippi state flag.” American Politics Research 32, no. 1 (2004): 102.
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