When It Comes to Confederate Flags, The History is the Context

It should come as no surprise that the two stories involving high school students waving and posing next to Confederate flags have become national news. It’s also painfully clear that the parties involved have no historical understanding of how to think through some of the important issues involved, namely the history. Last night the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board met to discuss the Instagram photo of two female students waving Confederate flags on the Gettysburg battlefield. A sizable crowd turned out to share their thoughts.

I am much more interested in the Chapel Hill situation precisely because it involves a school trip to Gettysburg. One comment that continues to surface, especially from those defending the girls, is that the photograph was taken out of context. What I take this to mean is that the girls did not intend to offend anyone in their school group or anyone who happened to see it online. It is unclear as to how the students came into possession of the flags, but regardless we can assume that the organizers of the event did not intend to offend anyone by sanctioning it. The father of one of the girls has repeatedly stated that the photograph was taken out of context.

But what exactly does this mean? How can this photograph be taken out of context on a trip to our most prominent Civil War battlefield? The only context that matters is the relevant history. Unless the organizers of this event can explain why these flags were being waved then parents and others have every right to be offended. There is no evidence that the flags were being used as part of a reenactment.

What the organizers of this trip and students failed to understand is that waving the Confederate flag, especially on a battlefield, has attached to it a very long and painful history. The relevant historical context for this flag is its connection to an army whose sole mission was to bring about the independence of a slave-holding nation. Regardless of their individual motivations, that is what North Carolinians and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia was doing at Gettysburg in July 1863. The relevant historical context for this flag is its appropriation by white Americans as a symbol of resistance against the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. It’s entire history is wrapped up in the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy.

What is sad is that the students and adults did not appear to understand this before departing to Gettysburg or at the conclusion of the trip. A school visit to Gettysburg isn’t the place to introduce this broad narrative, it’s where you solidify it.

The only question that matters now is whether East Chapel Hill High School will take the necessary steps to educate their students. If anything, we have all been given a reminder of why history education is indispensable.

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15 comments… add one
  • Leo May 8, 2015

    Something I have noticed is the “heritage” crowd is perfectly fine, or at least supportively silent, when the battle flag is misused but they go ballistic when someone is offended by it or objects to it’s use in the previously mentioned manner. One would think they would be in the vanguard of people crying out against the flag being used in such a way, but I suppose they do not really care how it is used just that it is used.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2015

      I’ve wondered the very same thing, but it seems they simply have very low standards.

  • Ryan Semmes May 8, 2015

    The “Mid-South Flaggers” will be coming to Mississippi State University tomorrow, 5-9-15, to protest the presence of the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant project and the library expansion for a new reading room for the Grant Library collection. I knew of the Virgina and Florida flaggers from your blog but was not aware of a North Miss, West Tenn group. Anyway they will be here spouting their nonsense about heritage over hate, Grant the war criminal, etc. Just thought you’d find it interesting.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2015

      They don’t seem to understand that universities are in the business of knowledge in its various forms.

    • Leo May 8, 2015

      That circus traves quite a bit to places like Oxford and Memphis. They even protested a commemoration of the Fort Pillow Massacre and staged a flagging in Memphis on the MLK holiday. It takes a special kind of stupid to wave confederate flags in the city where Dr. King was murdered.

    • Isn’t this a different sort of thing for the Flaggers? I thought they just protested removals and “offenses against” the CBF, but this is a protest of a library devoted to someone they find objectionable. Are these “Mid-South” folks a little more radical?

  • Billy Bearden May 8, 2015

    The girls were part of a class field trip to Gettysburg. Their class held a “Pickett’s Charge” type reenactment.
    As the girls and school class hail from NC, what flags are seen in the photo is reproductions of NC Battleflags.
    All students were given a number, and the students began to cross the field waving their flags. The leaders of this exercise began calling numbers, and as each was called, that student laid down as a ‘casualty’ The 2 girls in the photo were the lone ‘survivors’ who made it ‘to the wall’ and they are displaying the flags they used in the school program.

    The slave comment was plain stupid, but neither of the girls made it. The girls have humbly apologized numerous times for naught. The girls have had death threats and are being drug thru hell over this – a simple educational moment gone horribly awry from haters and the usual suspects in the race industry.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2015

      It would be helpful to have a source.

      Sounds like an utter waste of time given the spectrum of activities that could lead to real understanding.

      …a simple educational moment gone horribly awry from haters and the usual suspects in the race industry.

      I question whether what you describe ought to be considered an educational moment. Finally, you are the last person who ought to be lecturing others on hate.

      That is all.

  • Ron Creatore May 8, 2015

    Kevin, I am the father of one of the girls in the photo — the father who you cite as being the one who has made the statement that the photo has been taken out of context. I would be more than happy to discuss my position in this matter. My identity has been clearly-stated in much of the coverage, so if you truly desired to write a balanced and well-informed piece it would not have been difficult to reach me.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2015

      Mr. Creatore,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. First, let me state up front that this is not a newspaper, it’s a blog. This particular post was written in response to the claim that the photograph was taken out of context. I do hope it is sufficiently clear and I would be happy to discuss it with you further if interested.

      I am sure that the past few days has been difficult for your family. I don’t believe for a minute that the two students intended to offend anyone. The photograph is reflective of what has slowly emerged as a problematic tour. There is no reason to provide students with Confederate flags on a battlefield like Gettysburg. I say this as a high school history teacher and as someone who has years of experience leading student tours on Civil War battlefields. That the organizers of this tour did not understand this is unfortunate.

      It should come as no surprise that the community is offended given the history of the flag. Your daughter learned a valuable lesson about posting photographs online as well as the fact that the legacy of the Civil War is still very much alive. Now I hope she and the rest of the school community has an opportunity to learn something about why the flag causes such unrest. Thanks again for the comment.

  • MSB May 9, 2015

    This is a very sad business. God knows I did stupid and insensitive things in my youth, which I deeply regretted later. Experimentation is one of the purposes of youth, after all. I’m deeply grateful to have committed my various follies in an age without instantaneous communication and publicity. As the public attention span is short, I hope these kids can return to normal life soon and continue the process of maturing.

    I was thrilled to be able to visit Gettysburg last summer. And one of the things in my mind, as I looked over the battlefield, was that the Confederates did more than fight there. They also kidnapped African Americans for fun and profit, so the child’s remark about slave buying was particularly unfortunate.

    Thanks for the photo you chose to illustrate this post, Kevin. I was a child during the Civil Roghts Movement, and photos like these showed me the CBF for the first time, so racism and violence remain its primary associations for me.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2015

      As the public attention span is short, I hope these kids can return to normal life soon and continue the process of maturing.

      I do as well, but I hope the school follows up by finding a way to do a little education on this important topic.

      I was a child during the Civil Roghts Movement, and photos like these showed me the CBF for the first time, so racism and violence remain its primary associations for me.

      Often we hear that it was and is extremist groups who utilized the flag as a symbol of resistance against civil rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was used by mainstream politicians and a wide demographic of white men, women and children throughout the period. The emotional backlash we’ve seen from the community stems primarily from this more recent history as opposed to the war itself.

  • Leo May 9, 2015

    Kevin, this is not a story to which I have paid much attention, but I don’t have a real problem with the girls having confederate flags at Gettysburg. The problem is having the slave comment attached to the image. That gives it context and creates the controversy. I don’t know who used the slave comment, but it is obvious to me the school did a very poor job of teaching the Civil War or the comment would have never been used.

    I don’t believe the girls intended any malace toward anyone. This is an unfortunate case of youthful indiscretion combined with the failure of the School to teach.

    Let’s turn the page and allow these girls to move on with their lives and a little more knowledge about the world.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2015

      The problem is having the slave comment attached to the image. That gives it context and creates the controversy.

      I stated in the post that I don’t believe the girls intended to upset anyone. The context is the history of the flag, which you cannot change. Whatever the intentions were behind the visit to Gettysburg, the photograph alone lends itself to interpretation. It’s not surprising that the broader school community and beyond is now upset. I suspect that the students do not understand the relevant history and I question the organizers of the event for providing the flags to begin with. They should be aware of the potentials pitfalls involved.

      • Leo May 9, 2015

        I see your point. I suppose I am just more stunned by the slave comment.

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