A History Lesson

Today’s Lakeland, Florida Ledger contains a very insightful interview with John Coski who is the librarian at the Museum of the Confederacy. I’ve spoken at length on this blog in reference to his new book on the history of the Confederate battle flag, which is the most complete study to date. Here is a brief excerpt from the interview:

The Ledger: In your book, you describe the importance of college sports in the emergence of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of southern identity.

Coski: That seems to be the way it became popularized on college campuses; certainly in sports is where it was manifested first publicly. I looked for evidence of it within the college campuses and combed through college yearbooks and the like. There’s no moment in time; I haven’t pinned it down to one person or one thing that can account for it. It’s still somewhat speculative. … I found some interesting Florida connections. The University of Florida if I recall correctly in 1941 it first appeared in the yearbook. So Florida actually embraced the flag sooner from what I can tell than the University of Mississippi did, judging by evidence that may not be complete. They probably embraced it earlier than most people realized. In fact the university had in the early 1950s during that flag fad period a school flag that was in orange and blue with the Confederate battle flag pattern. It was surprising to me, since I like most people tend to think of Ole Miss and the flag and not realize how many other colleges embraced it and certainly didn’t expect to find it at Florida.

The Ledger: As you write, the Ku Klux Klan and other groups began adopting the flag as their symbol. If that hadn’t happened, do you think the flag would be free of racial connotations in most people’s minds today?

Coski: To some degree it will always have an association with race and white supremacy because it’s associated with the Confederacy, and inevitably the Confederacy and race are joined at the hip. But it would be, I think, a less emotional, more remote kind of sober, historical issue rather than the visceral issue it is today because there are people still living, still in their prime though aging, who have real-life experience with the flag as a symbol that was intended for what they believed it was, that is it was wasn’t their imagination, they personally encountered it in the hands of people who meant them harm or ill or certainly meant to deny them what African-Americans considered to be their civil rights. The Klan certainly grabbed all the headlines, and it makes for the most visceral and emotion-striking images, but in the book I try to underscore that in terms of frequency of use it isn’t Klan but ordinary white Southerners (who displayed it). … During the civil rights era, the fact that the flag was carried by not just by the (white supremacist) J.B. Stoners, not just by the Klansmen and the (Klan leader) Robert Sheltons and the like, but also by ordinary mothers and fathers and students who didn’t want their schools integrated, and they chose that symbol to protest with. They chose it presumably because to them that’s what it meant. They understood that symbol to mean for whatever reason – based on race or based on constitutional principle – that flag meant, “We want our schools segregated.” I try to make a distinction between the various motivations that might have underlined that and give them benefit of doubt that they weren’t racists, that they were standing on constitutional principle, but in a sense it’s beside the point because what it still meant was that if you were black and you believed that integrated schools or basic civil rights were in your interest and people against you were denying your civil rights then it didn’t really matter whether they were racist or what was in their hearts or whether they were just dedicated states-righters, the result was the same, and the perception of the flag was the same. These people were shouting in the streets and outside the schools telling you you can’t have what you wanted. So to come back to your original question, because of that use of the flag, whatever their motivation was, African-Americans today when they pass on their traditions to their children, believe that the flag has a negative connotation. That more immediate use in our lifetime has made it a politically charged symbol, if not a racially charged one.

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