Teaching the Confederate Flag Controversy

Schools across the United States are dealing with the question of what to do about displays of the Confederate flag on campus. Last week around two dozen students in Christiansburg, Virginia were suspended and this week a school in Michigan requested that students leave the flag at home. Unfortunately, we are hearing little to nothing about whether schools are taking the opportunity to educate their students about this controversy. This is a unique opportunity for history/social studies departments to step in and try to help their students make sense of the long and complicated history of the Confederate flag. There are likely a number of reasons why this does not appear to be taking place. With that in mind I offer one possible approach to dealing with this issue in the classroom. Please pass this on to teachers and other educators who might be in need of some guidance. I am now scheduling talks and workshops with schools and individual classes. You can find more information about how I can help here

On July 10, 2015 the Confederate battle flag was removed from the grounds of the state capital of South Carolina in Columbia, where it had flown since 1962, following the murder of nine members of the AME Emmanuel Church in Charleston. The decision to lower the flag and the national debate that ensued concerning the display of the Confederate flag in public places was fueled by the alleged shooter’s written testimony that he hoped his actions would inspire a race war as well as the release of photographs of the individual with Confederate flags.

Events in South Carolina have led to community-wide discussions throughout the country about the display of Confederate iconography from flags to monuments and even the names of streets and buildings. These discussions are often emotionally charged and speak to competing memories and interpretations of the Civil War and much of our nation’s history that followed. At the heart of this debate is the question of how our Civil War ought to be remembered, commemorated in public spaces and taught in classrooms. For teachers this public debate offers an ideal opportunity to engage students about why the history of the Civil War era matters and why, 150 years later, it is still being fought over.

How to go about engaging students, however, can be a walk on the slippery rocks. Discussions about the history of race and slavery can leave students feeling alienated and school communities divided. With this in mind I offer one possible approach.

Over the past ten years public schools across the country have been on the front lines of the debate over the display of the Confederate flag. School communities have had to address students wearing clothing with the flag and/or displaying the flag on a vehicle. The courts have consistently ruled in favor of school administrators citing that their primary goal of maintaining peaceful learning communities supersedes concerns of freedom of expression. While the courts may have resolved the relevant legal issues, schools affected have been left to move forward without resolving the issues that caused the problem in the first place.

One way to address this question is to give students the responsibility of formulating their school’s policy on the display of the Confederate flag on campus. Their proposals must be informed by some level of understanding of the history of the Confederate flag from 1861 to 2015. A concise history of the Confederate that covers both the war and postwar periods can be found at Encyclopedia Virginia and at HistoryNet.  Instructors looking for a more detailed history should consult John Coski’s book, The Confederate Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Students should take note of three historical phases. The first covers the history of the battle flag during the war, including the role it played in Confederate regiments on the battlefield, how soldiers identified with it and the broader cause for which these men fought. Apart from the many reasons why soldiers volunteered students must come to terms with the fact that the army functioned as the military army of a government whose stated purpose was the establishment of a slaveholding republic. Following the end of the war Confederate veterans continued to display their flags during reunions and other events. These flags were displayed on a limited basis because they were identified widely as the soldiers’ flag. At the beginning of the twentieth century the United Daughters of the Confederacy set strict guidelines on the display of the flag and cautioned against its use for political purposes. Apart from a few exceptions this remained the case up through WWII.

The politicization of the battle flag beginning in 1948 by the Dixiecrat Party and its defiant stand for racial segregation marks the beginning of a second phase that extended through the Civil Rights era. The Confederate battle flag became a potent symbol of “Massive Resistance” against civil rights activists and could be found throughout the South at KKK rallies as well as students opposed to the integration of public schools. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement Georgia re-designed its state flag to include the battle flag in 1956 and in 1962 South Carolina raised a battle flag above the state house, where it remained until 2000.

The final phase is more difficult to pin down both in terms of time frame and content, but it generally reflects the Confederate battle flag’s evolution over the past few decades into a broad cultural symbol that has retained elements of its controversial past as well as new meanings. Confederate flags now come with images of outdoor life and even country singers like Hank Williams. It can be found on all kinds of items from bathing suits to shot glasses and it can be seen at a wide range of political rallies and concert venues.

Students should begin by working in small groups over the course of one or two classes before coming together to finalize a policy for the entire class. Instructors should emphasize throughout the process that discussions and proposals must be informed by the relevant history. Such an approach forces students to come to terms not only with a complicated history, but with inevitable disagreements over how a prominent symbol from that history ought to be interpreted and whether it has a place in a school community. An agreement on a policy could be used as a springboard for a broader discussion throughout the school and in the wider community.

Americans will continue to debate the history and memory of the Civil War. We cannot escape this past because it is bound up in fundamental questions about who we are as a people and as a nation. While disagreement and debate is inevitable we have a responsibility as history educators to find ways to encourage civil discourse about our collective past. We can start with our own students.

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9 comments… add one
  • Michael Freeman Oct 17, 2015 @ 23:19

    Confederate Soldiers,Sailors and Marines that fought in the Civil War were made U.S Veterans by an act of Congress in 1957, U.S public law 85-425.sec 410 , approved 23 may 1958.
    This made ALL CONFEDERATE Army,Navy, Marines equal to U.S veterans Additionally by the !7th Congress on 26 Feb 1929, the War Department was directed to erect headstones and recognize confederate grave site as U.S war grave sites. Just sayin……

  • msb Sep 24, 2015 @ 0:24

    Excellent post, Kevin. An added benefit would be awakening students to the idea that cultural symbols, as well as ideas and moral values, change over time, and not usually by themselves. History was a great aid to awakening me to the fact that “the ways things are” is neither immutable nor accidental.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 24, 2015 @ 3:05

      Absolutely. I hope that theme comes through in the history of the flag via the links provided.

  • Rob Baker Sep 23, 2015 @ 14:16

    The students were not suspended – unless they refused to change or reverse their shirts. Some of the students resisted that and were therefore suspended.

    Many social studies teachers consider a flag connection to the curriculum as a moot point since there will be no test questions which address the flag and it’s racial history. Bear in mind that test results impact teacher pay via the evaluation system of many GOP controlled states – most of those are in the South.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2015 @ 14:38

      Hi Rob,

      You are right that the testing culture in public schools has a detrimental impact on introducing topics like this, but I also know plenty of public school teachers who do take chances and would be interested in addressing this subject if they can find the right resources. You have already shown that it is possible.

  • Rory Washburne Sep 23, 2015 @ 10:49

    I’ve never understood suspending students from school as a punishment in cases like this. I know schools and teachers have limited time and resources to work with. However, I think using the time that they are suspended to teach them the history of the flag and war would be a better use of that time. Just one man’s opinion.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2015 @ 11:36

      I have a problem as well with the way it appears that schools are handling this controversy. As I point out in the post, the courts have ruled consistently that schools have the right to ban the symbol, but that doesn’t mean they do not have the obligation to educate. There are so many ways to connect the history of the Confederate flag with the curriculum. It’s unfortunate that more isn’t being done.

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