It should come as no surprise that the Sons of Confederate Veterans attributes yesterday’s unanimous decision by the Texas DMV as another attack on Confederate symbols and “Southern Heritage” more generally. It may surprise you to learn, however, that the leadership of the SCV at the turn of the twentieth century likely would have viewed yesterday’s decision as a victory.
Spend even a little time in the history of this divisive American symbol and what clearly emerges is the extent to which both the SCV and United Daughters of the Confederacy struggled to prevent the trivialization of the Confederate flag. They worked hard to both institutionalize and ritualize what historian John Coski describes as the “Confederately Correct” way to display the flag. It’s not until the 1930s and 40s that the flag begins to gain wider appeal, especially on Southern college campuses, first in response to the popularity of “Gone With the Wind” and later in response to regional tensions over civil rights. As racial tensions heated up in the postwar South the UDC did everything in its power to prevent the Dixiecrats from using the flag as the party symbol. By the 1960s the flag had become the symbol of white supremacy throughout much of the region, including atop state capitol buildings.
The SCV and the UDC did not want nor did it need to turn their communities into a Mort Kunstler painting, where the primary goal is to see how many Confederate flags you can fit. It meant more to them than that. Perhaps such an effort was futile from the outset, but that doesn’t change the fact that the question of license plates or even whether the flag will be flown from every public light post in downtown Lexington, Virginia has little to do with heritage and history – at least not in the way the SCV and UDC originally understood it. Rather, it’s just another example of the trivialization and commercialization of all things Confederate from the mass production of tacky trinkets to novelty items – especially those ugly Dixie Outfitters t-shirts. It’s a mindset that regards, according to Coski, “every space as a potential billboard” and constitutes a direct threat to the very idea of the sacred. What the SCV doesn’t realize is that every license plate push or unfurling of one of their “big ass flags” along a southern highway distorts and trivializes the very symbol they hold to be sacred. They are their own worst enemy and the very thing the original SCV and UDC hoped to prevent.