On more than one occasion I’ve recommended John Coski’s wonderful book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. There is nothing else like it. Coski offers a very readable and balanced view of the history of the flag. Toward the end, Coski offers his own interpretation of how to move forward with the debate over the public display of the Confederate flag. It involves compromises from all parties with a stake in this ongoing drama over history and heritage.
The flag’s effectiveness as an expression of an ideological tradition subverts its legitimacy as a publicly sanctioned or sponsored symbol. If even a minority of vocal flag loyalists regards the flag not merely as a memorial to Confederate dead but as a living testament to the power of anti-federal ideology or the symbol of a still-living Confederacy, it is difficult to defend the flag as a neutral, apolitical symbol that everyone should learn to respect. Why should people who have gained by the defeat of the Confederacy and the expansion of federal power be compelled to recognize a symbol that proponents tout as representing the values of states’ rights and opposition to the federal government? Because the battle flag is associated so closely with the Confederacy and with a states’ rights agenda, it symbolizes hostility to the rights and well-being of those who benefited from the defeat of states’ rights in the 1860s and again in the 1960s….
A suitably moderate position would recognize the Confederate flag as an American symbol with an inevitable place on the American landscape–without, however, allowing it to be displayed as a symbol of sovereignty. Descendants of Confederate veterans who wish to display the flag to honor their ancestors should favor a return to the practice, prior to World War II, of displaying the flag only as an unambiguously historical or memorial symbol. They should resurrect an older, intellectually consistent understanding of protecting the flag from desecration. This does not mean banishing the flag from public view. Confederate heritage groups should be free to use the flag in their functions, including Memorial Day observances, parades, and ceremonies commemorating important anniversaries–knowing, of course, that it still may be the target of protest from people who believe that it is wrong to honor anyone or anything associated with the Confederacy. But instead of urging everyone to keep it flying everywhere, flag advocates should censure any use of the flag that is not unambiguously memorial or historical in nature. Those who truly regard the battle flag as a sacred war memorial for Confederate ancestors should oppose its use on T-shirts, baseball caps, and other popular culture items that trivialize its meaning. Such use of the flag may be consistent with contemporary culture and protected by current interpretations of free speech rights, but Confederate heritage groups should use their free speech to curb such use, not to encourage it….
Flag critics in turn must be more tolerant of the flag’s presence as a war memorial and historical symbol. Because of the flag’s association with the Confederacy and its use by modern groups intent on reviving the Confederacy, critics will remain suspicious of anyone who displays the flag, even if it is not publicly sponsored or political in nature. But in a culture that is willing to tolerate so much that offends so many people in the name of free speech and free expression, the offensiveness of the Confederate flag is not sufficient reason to censor it… Flag critics must (for practical as well as for ethical reasons) become more willing to distinguish between a Ku Klux Klan rally and a Memorial Day parade. Confederate national flags belong in publicly sponsored displays of historical flags, just as they do not belong on contemporary symbols of sovereignty. Americans must learn to accept displays of the flag that merely acknowledge the Confederacy’s existence. The Confederacy is an important part of American history, and it behooves everyone to study it and understand it in all its complexity. Flag displays that remind people of this complex history nourish rather than poison the public dialogue. (pp. 301-03).
There is a great deal that I am in agreement with. My own opposition to the Virginia Flaggers’ proposed flag off I-95 has nothing to do with wanting to see Confederate flags completely removed from public view. I expect to see them at places such as Oakwood and Hollyood Cemeteries as well as other historic sites in the Richmond area. I expect to see small flags along Monument Avenue and other historic sites in the Richmond area. This includes the memorial chapel on the VMFA grounds, where the Flaggers’ movement began a few years ago. I’ve never had a problem with a Confederate flag flying in front of the chapel, though I have on more than one occasion expressed frustration with the way this group has gone about voicing its concerns as well as with the targets of their more recent protests.
That said, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts should sit down with Susan Hathaway and see if a resolution is possible. The chapel itself is a physical reminder that Confederate veterans once made the surrounding grounds their home. If ever a Confederate flag was appropriate it is at the chapel. So, let’s RETURN THE FLAGS AND RESTORE THE HONOR even if we agree that the Flaggers themselves have done a poor job of articulating what exactly this means.
In contrast, this proposed I-95 flag has nothing to do with history or heritage and has everything to do with the Flaggers’ lack of success thus far and desperation for increased attention. It smacks of a lack of creativity. There are so many historical settings in the Richmond area in which to honor the Confederate soldier and its leaders that to suggest that there is a need for a highway flag is simply laughable.