Removal of Confederate Flags Marks the End of the Civil War Sesquicentennial

We just might look back and point to the wave of anti-Confederate flag fervor witnessed over the last week as marking the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial (2011-2015). A good case can be made. While the mainstream media has treated the outcry as stemming directly from last week’s shooting, a closer look reveals that the Confederate flag and other iconography have been engaged in a slow retreat from public view for some time. The flag’s retreat is part of a broader shift in our public memory of the war that has gradually taken hold over the past few decades.

In December 2010 a “secession ball” was held in Charleston to mark the 150th anniversary of the state’s decision to leave the union. That the event was  held was not surprising, but news coverage and protests on the ground suggested at the time that the sesquicentennial was not going to be a repeat of the centennial. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the celebration “unfortunate” and reminded his city that you cannot understand South Carolina’s secession without understanding slavery. His remarks set the tone for the next four years of commemoration and remembrance. The recent backlash against the Confederate flag is incomprehensible without understanding the central role that slavery, race, and emancipation have played in shaping sesquicentennial events. Regardless of whether it has been intentional or not, the Lost Cause narrative has never been more of a target. Its retreat can be seen in the wide slate of programs offered by the National Park Service, state sesquicentennial commissions and other institutions as well as the textbooks now being used in the classroom. In contrast with the centennial, organizers of sesquicentennial events made a conscious effort to reach out to a broader segment of the American population with an interpretation that reflected a more mature interpretation of the war and one that grappled with the tough questions.

As a result of this broader interpretive shift came the inevitable question of what to do with the most iconic symbol of the Confederacy: the flag. Over the past four years communities across the South wrestled with this question. Even in Lexington, Virginia, where both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried, the city voted to remove Confederate flags from public poles. Last year Washington & Lee University (also in Lexington) removed Confederate flags from inside Lee Chapel. Other communities have followed suit. In Memphis a vote was taken to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, while in other places monuments to the Confederacy are being removed to more appropriate places. A few months ago the Charlottesville city council voted to end their recognition of Lee-Jackson Day, while other towns and cities are questioning whether to continue to recognize Confederate Memorial Day. Across the entire country the courts have ruled consistently that schools may ban Confederate flags on campus for security reasons.

It is important to remember that these debates are not being imposed on Southern communities by evil scalawags and carpetbaggers. They are taking place organically from within.

Organizations and individuals committed to the Lost Cause have fought to stem the tide, but it has been a losing fight. Politicians have done their best at threading the needle between “Heritage and Hate.” In a statement released shortly after the shootings, the South Carolina Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans trotted out the myth of the black Confederate while yesterday they reduced Dylann Roof’s identification with the Confederate flag and his actions generally as just another example of “Satan’s” work. This is truly a lost cause argument. Roof’s embrace of the flag has deep historical roots that are now impossible to deny.

Looking back over the past four years it now appears that the small cracks in the Lost Cause dam resulted in a complete breach. The flood of calls for removals and other changes associated with Confederate iconography will, no doubt, have to be dialed back once cooler heads prevail, but it is clear that this wave is advancing a discussion/debate that has been ongoing throughout the South for some time.

The country caught up with what has been taking place throughout the South. The confusion, passion, and mistrust that defines our Civil War memory will have to be sorted out one community at a time – an inevitable and appropriate (if not unfortunate, given the circumstances) way to bring to a close our Civil War sesquicentennial.

36 comments… add one
  • Annette Jackson Jun 26, 2015

    I hope you are correct, Kevin. But in every discussion on various Internet sites there are multiple posts on how we all need to read “real history,” which always means Lost Cause rhetoric….always the same misinformation phrased in identical language ….same buzz words. I can not tell you how many times I have been called a “statist” until that was replaced by the next word of the day. Just as it is not “easy being green” it is not easy to be a liberal in the south.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2015

      You need to look beyond the Internet. The kinds of changes that I reference in the post are far more important.

      • Annette Jackson Jun 26, 2015

        I do, including my volunteer work at a national park.

    • LARRY DELANO COLEMAN Jun 26, 2015

      GREAT OBSERVATION AND ENCAPSULATION OF HISTORICAL IRONY

  • Patrick Young Jun 26, 2015

    A few disjointed but related points:

    1. There has been more Civil War-related discussion over the last two weeks than there was throughout the rest of the Sesquicentennial. Since it has not been handcuffed by the norms of the Civil War community, it has been much more honest and straightforward.

    2. The sudden abandonment of Confederate iconography by politicians who a few years ago could be depended upon to sweep CBF controversy under the rug should serve as a warning to Heritagists that the racially divisive tactics they have used in the past do not work. Politicians are not experts in history, but they are experts in getting elected. If they abandon a constituency it is because they know that constituency has declined in power and importance.

    3. The Heritagist antics of Flagging, Black Confederates, HK etc. have alienated a large part of the electorate.

    4. The Heritagist denunciation of anyone who cannot trace ancestry back to a Confederate veteran as a “Carpetbagger” is among the most alienating of tactics, since that description applies to about half the people in many Southern states. Denouncing an immigrant mayor of a Southern city as not a real Southerner, as was done in Charlotesville, identifies the Confederate flag with xenophobia and alienates the fastest growing part of the Southern electorate.

    4. The symbols of the Confederacy are in public spaces and require public support to continue to be displayed. Normally this would demand that those supporting the continued presence of statues of Confederate leaders and monuments to the Confederate dead build broad coalitions demonstrating modern multi-cultural relevance to their preservation. Instead we see arrogant men dressed in Confederate uniforms showing up at meetings with elected officials demanding, as though we were still in the days before before the Voting Rights Act, that everyone in the community be ignored except for True Southern Whites. Dudes, if you can’t form a coalition with people who don’t look like you, don’t bother showing up.

    5. The Heritagists depict themselves as a loyal remnant fighting a rearguard action against demographic inevitability. That is a sad psychological state and a doomed political strategy.

    • Jimmy Dick Jun 26, 2015

      That would be conservatism in a nutshell for number five. That is not a coincidence.

  • Charles Brown Jun 26, 2015

    Thank you for this post, Kevin.

  • R E Watson Jun 26, 2015

    “It is important to remember that these debates are not being imposed on Southern communities by evil scalawags and carpetbaggers. They are taking place organically from within.”

    But “real true” Southerners like Connie disagree with you. 🙂

  • Ken Noe Jun 26, 2015

    Having thought a lot about the Sesquicentennial in the last four years, I think this is smart and exactly right. Whether people like it or not, future histories of the 150th will begin and end in Charleston. I also used the “dam” analogy in a television interview the other day–there already had to be a lot of pressure behind the dam for this crack it to obliterate it this way.

  • Leo Jun 26, 2015

    I would not celebrate just yet. The Mississippi flag is still flying and it looks like our state flag is not going to change after all. The governor refuses to call the legislature into secession to deal with it despite several legislators stating a willingness to discuss the matter. There seems to be a strong consensus among legislators and the general public for a return to the original state flag usually referred to as the Magnolia Flag, but I don’t see anything happening under governor Bryant’s “leadership”. He would likely veto any move to change the flag made by the legislature anyway, so don’t expect any dramatic change as far as Mississippi is concerned.

    However, the mayor of Hattiesburg ordered all state flags removed from city property and all the major universities here have issued statements for a change. The Mayor of Oxford has also issued a statement for change with other public officials and newspapers.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2015

      It’s not about celebration, Leo. I am simply pointing out the attention directed at the flag and other examples of Confederate memory is not happening in a vacuum.

      • John Betts Jun 26, 2015

        Well it may be gauche, but I’M celebrating. It’s about time that the “Lost Cause” mythos took the drubbing it so rightly deserves. Before the Internet it was very difficult for your average person to learn the full history of the period, especially if raised in the South like I was. Now we can all easily access primary and secondary sources for ourselves online to read what Southerners themselves had to say about secession and slavery. I’ve learned more about the Civil War over the past 15 years or so as a result of this than I was ever taught in school. I still recall being quite angry when the 1997 movie “Amistad” came out. Why was I angry? The movie itself was okay, but I was unhappy to learn that such a significant episode had been left out of my history text. I do understand that not everything can be covered in a class, but this case was arguably worth mentioning. In short, I felt lied to. Btw, I say this not relying on what the movie depicted (which was wrong in some counts) but on good scholarly works I quickly ran out and purchased to read up on it. So yeah, I AM celebrating because it’s far past time we put the “Lost Cause” nonsense to rest.

        • Jimmy Dick Jun 26, 2015

          Any time a debate takes place between us and the heritage crew and primary sources get brought up and displayed, it is like a light being flipped on and watching cockroaches run for shelter. The heritage crew cuts and runs because they have nothing in their catechism that withstands the light of truth.

          It is past time for the lost cause to be eradicated from the land. Let it die along with the cockroaches who cling to it. (cue the image of a Raid commercial at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_0–PQqytU )

          • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2015

            Let’s try to move beyond the heritage crowd. We’ve been through this time and time again.

          • John Betts Jun 27, 2015

            I haven’t had many dealing with those usually cited as being the “heritage crew” but I’ve heard many of the same arguments from average people. From my own background experience and these interactions I’d have to say that we still have a long way to go in history education. James Loewen and I probably do not see eye to eye on too much politically, but from what I’ve read in a couple of his books I have to agree with him that public education hasn’t done a good job. To be fair though, changes have taken place and more will occur.

  • Leo Jun 26, 2015

    I understand your greater point and wasn’t implying gloating or anything so distasteful on your part. It’s just that our governor is hiding behind a non-binding referendum held fourteen years ago so discussion can’t take place in a constructive way in Mississippi today. He is no better than George Wallace blocking the door at the University of Alabama.

  • M. E. Martin Jun 26, 2015

    I would add the ending of the lease of the Confederate Memorial Chapel by the Commonwealth of Va. with Lee-Camp SCV in Richmond on June 1. The obnoxious and offensive flagger presence, with various local, state, and national SCV members participating, played a role.

    Also a factor: Lee-Jackson Camp presenting Susan Hathaway an award for “outstanding service.” If anyone gains from all of this, it is this self-styled neo-confed Marianne, who with the recent turn of events will no doubt book even more speaking engagements with the hardcore CBF worshipers. Taking a bow, perhaps, at next month’s national SCV convention in Richmond?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2015

      I see the Virginia Flaggers as part of this rearguard action that I described in the post. They have had absolutely no impact over the past few years apart from mustering up sufficient funds to put up Confederate flags on private property. The real battle is being waged in the public and not the private sector.

    • Andy Hall Jun 26, 2015

      The Virginia Flaggers (and similar groups) don’t seem ever to have considered what happens if the targets of their ire — the VMFA, the City of Lexington, W&L, and so on — don’t just roll over and say “uncle.” They celebrate the determination and steadfastness of their Confederate ancestors, but never seem to credit that other people who disagree with them might have those same qualities. The act like belligerent assholes over a period of years — one prominent member of their group was ordered to stay away from VMFA board members’ homes — and then (presumably) expect to be invited to the decision table and accorded respect and deference to their wishes.

      Since the first day they appeared on the sidewalk in Richmond, nearly four years ago, the Virginia Flaggers have only had one path to getting their way, which is to be enough of a nuisance, a pain-in-the-ass, for their targets to simply throw up their hands and say, “fine, you win.” That hasn’t really happened much, but they have no Plan B, and never have had. They’re not “forwarding the colors” so much as they’re just marking time.

  • Andy Hall Jun 26, 2015

    Roof’s embrace of the flag has deep historical roots that are now impossible to deny.

    The shrill chest-thumping this week from the heritage crowd turns a deliberately blind eye to it, though, loudly insisting that the gunman in Charleston was a “madman,” “lunatic” or similar term. This gives them an excuse to ignore his detailed, self-stated explanation for this actions, because (after all) no one can explain the actions of a madman, right?

    But the gunman in Charleston wasn’t crazy, any more than Mohammed Atta or Eric Rudolph were. Fanatic? Sure, as anyone who resorts to that sort of terrorism must be. But not crazy. There is a clear rationale to his actions, horrible as they are, and it’s completely bound up in his affinity for the Confederacy and the antebellum South. Anyone who ignores that, frankly, is more self-delusional than the young man who committed these murders.

    The heritage crowd, some of them, will never acknowledge these basic linkages, even though the gunman himself laid them them all out for us to see, and in fact wanted us to see them and understand. But then, these make-believe Confederates are the same people who can ignore the words of real Confederates of 1860-61, explaining their rationale for secession and the values they held. If they can ignore that in the face of the six hundred thousand who died in 1861-65, ignoring nine more violent deaths in 2015 is easy.

  • Ryan Jun 26, 2015

    Ryan,

    You don’t have the courage to use your full name and instead of contributing to the discussion you choose to insult others. That is all.

    KML

  • Leo Jun 26, 2015

    The protestors being referred to in this letter by the Oxford mayor are the MidSouth Flaggers. They are another group of boneheads who are their own worst enemies.

    http://hottytoddy.com/2015/06/24/oxford-mayor-pens-open-letter-in-favor-of-changing-mississippi-flag/

  • Leo Jun 26, 2015

    Sigh … I am totally against the removal and the vandalism of monuments, but this is the push back I expected from frustration over police brutality and even the “in your face” tactics of flagger groups. That giant confederate flag along the interstate isn’t winning any hearts and minds. It’s pissing black people off who are already outraged.

    You reap what you sew. Good job, flaggers.

  • lunchcountersitin Jun 26, 2015

    Kevin,

    I think there is still some unfinished business for us as the Sesquicentennial ends. I am concerned that the commemorative landscape still does not adequately reflect the African American experience during the war.

    I make comments about that here:
    https://jubiloemancipationcentury.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/going-beyond-the-confederate-flag-controversy-missing-monuments-the-unfinished-work-of-commemorating-the-african-american-experience-in-the-civil-war/

    – Alan

    • Kevin Levin Jun 26, 2015

      I think there is still some unfinished business for us…

      Nothing that I’ve said here is meant to suggest closure of any kind. I am simply offering what I think is a context that has gone missing in the media’s coverage.

      • lunchcountersitin Jun 26, 2015

        “Nothing that I’ve said here is meant to suggest closure of any kind.”

        Correct, and I was not trying to imply as much. I was merely discussing the challenges we have as the Sesqui ends and the heat over the CBF subsides.

        FYI, my article was not meant as a response to your post. It just so happens we wrote our posts at around the same time, and I thought that my article might be of interest.

        – Alan

    • John Betts Jun 26, 2015

      It’s coming, Alan. We’re trying to make some room first. 😉 Btw, I’d add Robert Smalls to your list. I know he has a statue at the church where he’s buried, but the man’s story is incredible and he deserves more I think.

      • lunchcountersitin Jun 26, 2015

        FYI, In an earlier version of my post I mentioned that Smalls deserves more attention in the pubic space. But since he’s had at least some mention in the memorial space, I left it out.

        But I totally agree, his story does deserve more of a profile than it has now.

        – Alan

        • John Betts Jun 27, 2015

          I hadn’t heard of him before until a couple of years ago when I stumbled across information about him online, although I cannot remember how. I read a good biography and looked up more information about him and was really impressed by what I saw. In some ways his story makes him the quintessential “American hero” one sees on movies and I’m amazed that no one has told his story in film yet. Certainly there are all the elements for a good movie, from action, to love, drama, struggles of being the underdog, etc. Imagine seeing all of that on the Big Screen and how that would raise interest from the general public in learning more about him and others forgotten in our history?

  • Leo Jun 26, 2015

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