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.