Our Obsession With the Confederate Flag

My editor at the Atlantic asked me to revise a recent post on the DNC and the Confederate flag.  You can read it below or at the Atlantic.  I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects.  What I find funny is that the posts I’ve written for the Atlantic that could be construed as Union bashing or whatever the equivalent is this side of the Mason-Dixon Line rarely receive any kind of condemnation.  Funny how that works.  Click here for the rest of the my Atlantic columns.

Next month’s Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation’s first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region’s progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.

Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that “remnants of the Old South linger in our region — and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.” Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents “heritage, not hate.” (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland’s story puts it, “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.”)

This affirmation of benign Southern pride is typically followed by a quote from a local historian who reminds us of the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the Confederate cause. The author’s inevitable plea “that it is time we put it away” leaves the reader with the impression that an inordinate number of white southerners remain preoccupied with the flag. This overly simplistic narrative masks a more complex history, as well as evidence suggesting that attitudes about the Confederate flag are, in fact, continually evolving in the South.

Not all Confederate soldiers fought under the blue St. Andrew’s cross (more accurately, the saltire). And apart from its use during veterans events, the flag’s visibility was minimal during the decades following the war. At the beginning of the 20th century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to protect the flag’s connection to the men in the ranks by maintaining a strict code governing its usage in public. Misuse and alignment with questionable causes, they believed, would not only soil the meaning of the flag, but the memory of the Confederacy and the righteousness of its cause as well.

By the 1940s, however, the flag could be seen at University of Mississippi football games and other popular events, ushering in what historian John Coski has called a “flag fad.” That fad eventually extended to the far reaches of the nation, and the flag can now be seen on every kind of trinket and tchotchke imaginable.

However, the flag’s most lasting legacy — and the source of much of the controversy today — can be traced to its use as a symbol of “Massive Resistance” by the Dixiecrats beginning in 1948 and continuing through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. During that period, the flag became the standard for those committed to defending classrooms, bus depots, and other public spaces (now battlefields themselves) from black encroachment.

In fact, the flag’s use throughout the 20th century covered a time span significantly longer than its presence on Civil War battlefields. Its placement atop southern statehouses like South Carolina ultimately reinforced the flag’s connection to segregation and racism.

Confederate flags no longer enjoy those privileged perches. In fact, over the past few years, white and black southerners have become less tolerant of the public display of the flag, which has relegated its supporters to the sidelines and a much more defensive posture. Last year, the city of Lexington, Virginia, banned the flying of the flag from public fixtures. This past spring, the Museum of the Confederacy opened a new branch at Appomattox that did not include the display of the flag outside its doors. Finally, late last year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond removed Confederate flags flying on the grounds of the Confederate Memorial Chapel, which the museum oversees.

The museum’s decision led to the creation of a grassroots group called the Virginia Flaggers, but despite daily protests in front of the museum and a social media presence, its efforts have met with no success. The Sons of Confederate Veterans utilized their mailing lists and other resources in response to all three events, but they also have little to show for their efforts. These shifting fault lines suggest that while white and black southerners may tolerate the right of the individual to display the flag on private property, its display on public grounds and at other institutions will be met with suspicion and openly challenged.

None of this easily fits into the popular narrative of a region mired in the past that uses a 19th century flag to pit the races against one another. I suspect there will be few, if any, Confederate flags to count during the coverage of next month’s DNC, and that should tell us a great deal about how far we’ve come as a nation.

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17 comments… add one

  • Paul Taylor Aug 16, 2012

    As the flags in public spaces come down, I wonder if the Confederate soldier monuments on courthouse lawns across the South could be next? After all, I think many of the arguments against the display of the flag on public buildings could easily extend to such monuments. I don’t think I’d want to see that happen as many of these statues could be viewed as historical artifacts and/or artistic sculpture in their own right. But it would not surprise me if some did. Thoughts?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

      Hi Paul,

      It’s a good question and I could be wrong, but I don’t think the courthouse monuments are next. At least as far as I am aware there is no movement to remove them. The monuments are not divisive in the way the Confederate flag is and that has everything to do with how the flag has been used over the years.

      I’ve said more than once on this blog that I am against the removal of Confederate monuments. I would like to see interpretive markers utilized to place these monuments in some kind of historical context.

      • Lyle Smith Aug 16, 2012
        • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

          And what has come of it? Nothing.

          • Lyle Smith Aug 16, 2012

            Nothing yet.

            Its a fact that there are people in these communities who want to see the statues removed.

            • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

              Its a fact that there are people in these communities who want to see the statues removed.

              Did I ever deny this? Let me know when this becomes a real issue. Just because the media loves this kind of story doesn’t mean that we need to worry about it. Thanks for the comment.

              • Lyle Smith Aug 16, 2012

                No, I didn’t say you did, but you did say “there is no movement to remove them”. I’m just trying to add some additional information to help answer Paul’s question.

                As I said, above, I tend to agree with you on whether or not the statues will be removed. I don’t see them being removed anytime soon. That doesn’t mean though that there aren’t people around who’d like to see the statues removed. There clearly are. People have even commented in your comments about removing Confederate statues. And I’m not saying you don’t know this, but I thought Paul might like to know about it.

                • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2012

                  I appreciate the links, but I just don’t see how these stories constitute anything resembling a “movement.”

                  • Billy Bearden Aug 17, 2012

                    Add to the above stories, the statues on the grounds of UT in Austin, Silent Sam, NBF in Memphis, the uproar out of Reidsville NC that both the Mayor and UDC agreed with not to rebuild the statue in the traffic circle, the NBF memorial in Selma where it was moved from the Smitherman Historical Building, a move in Pitt County NC, the relocation off the courthouse in Ocala Fla, the moves to get the NC state capitol CSA memorial removed, The CSA marker forced out of the Veterans park to the Apartment complex across the street in NoVa, an attempt a while back to remove the Oxford NC monument, The efforts to get the bust of Jefferson Davis out of the Kentucky capitol rotunda, the UDC marker in Blaine Washington that was removed from the Jefferson Davis memorial hiway and placed in a govt shed by state rep Hans Dunshee, and so on and so forth ad naseum….

                    • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2012

                      How many of these cases have actually resulted in the removal of monuments/markers completely from public viewing? Sorry, but I still do not see a movement afoot.

            • Michael Rodgers Aug 16, 2012

              It’s a fact that there are people in these communities who want to see the statues remain.

              • Lyle Smith Aug 16, 2012

                This is a fact too. I’d be one of those people.

    • Michael Rodgers Aug 16, 2012

      The central argument against the display of the Confederate flag on public buildings is as follows: Only flags of our government should be flown from public buildings.

      This central argument has nothing to do with monuments and does not extend to monuments. It is not about what to take down but what to fly.

      The peripheral argument against the display of the Confederate flag on public buildings is as follows: As a people we should, from time to time, review what public displays actually serve the public good by challenging, educating, or inspiring.

      This peripheral argument can be extended to monuments. For example, Penn State decided to remove the Paterno statue. For example, once in a while people in South Carolina talk about removing the Tillman statue.

  • Doug didier Aug 17, 2012

    Ngram. Confederate flag

    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Confederate+flag&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    Links at bottom for examples from each time increment ..

  • Matt McKeon Aug 19, 2012

    The monument business is, IMO, an attempt to conflat something (no gov’t display of the Confederate flag) with a hypothetical monument removal that would be deeply unpopular. It’s a debate tactic, the ol’ slippery slope, like when opponents of gay marriage start mumbling about polygamy or sexual congress with animals.

    • Michael Rodgers Aug 19, 2012

      Yes, I agree completely. In fact, the slippery slope argument works against the flaggers if we look at flags alone. We should fly our sovereign flags only and stop there. We should fly no other flags. The flaggers want us to fly a nonsovereign flag. Where does it stop? Once we start flying one nonsovereign flag, we have to fly them all, as we slide down the slippery slope.

    • Michael Rodgers Aug 19, 2012

      Same thing with license plates. We should have only one license plate per state. Once a state starts to have additional license plates, where does it stop?

      In South Carolina, the proliferation of license plate styles is so far out of hand. They tried to have an “I Believe” license plate but doing so caused lawsuits and the state lost (money down the drain). Now there’s even a Gadsden flag license plate, which is strange because I thought the Tea Party didn’t want government competing with private (bumper sticker) business.

      http://www.thestate.com/2012/07/04/2341367/specialty-plates-get-approval.html

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