Lynched With a Confederate Flag

Last night I gave a talk at the GAR Hall in Lynn, which is the home of the General Lander Civil War Round Table. My topic was the history and memory of the Confederate flag. I presented a fairly broad  interpretation that highlighted the different stages from the war years through to the current controversy involving flags and monuments.

I made a fairly strong connection between the Confederate battle flag and the explicit goals of the Confederacy. The distinction between the soldiers’ flag or what the soldiers fought for and the broader goals of the Confederate nation is untenable as far as I am concerned. I stressed the battle flag’s narrow usage during the postwar period before its politicization beginning in the late 1940s with the emergence of the Dixiecrat, but I also introduced my audience to the piece of evidence below.

Will Echols Lynching

Lynching of Will Echols, Quitman, Miss, 1920

Reference to this news item recently appeared in an essay published in the OAH’s magazine, The American Historian by Jason M. Ward. He uses this violent lynching involving a Confederate flag to challenge the narrative outlined above.

If the uncertain future of the battle flag divides these camps, the flag’s defenders and detractors have demonstrated remarkable consensus on at least one aspect of the flag’s history. From activists and celebrities who have joined the call for the flag’s removal to neo-Confederates and those currying their political favor, commentators have consistently emphasized a mid-twentieth-century metamorphosis engineered by diehard segregationists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis. These extremists, so the story goes, transformed a historic symbol of the Civil War into an emblem of racist defiance. Historians, of course, bear some responsibility for this popular notion, and the chasm between Civil War and civil rights in the flag’s story reminds us that symbol and meaning is never static. Yet in that yawning gap, we can find ample evidence that the flag remained what it had always been since its creation—a banner for a white supremacist regime that could not exist without constant violence.

It’s an incredible piece of evidence, but it is also the only evidence Ward presents to support his claim. Have any of you come across similar news articles?

8 comments… add one
  • Bryan Cheeseboro Dec 12, 2015

    The way they tortured this man- who may have been guilty of nothing more than being Black- sounds so much like ISIS and what they have done to some of their victims.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2015

      Yes, we certainly don’t have to look beyond our own borders for a history of violent extremism.

      • Marian Latimer Dec 13, 2015

        Are we still lynching today? Chicago, Ferguson, and on and on? Charleston has brought the hurt caused by that flag out in the open to be sure, but has it also emboldened those who would act on the sentiments it represents, including law enforcement officers? (realizing that it only takes a few bad actors to taint the many)

  • BorderRuffian Dec 14, 2015

    Another version. Echols was shot, but no mob, lynching or flag-
    “Meridian, Miss…..[Echols] was taken from the jail at Quitman about 3′ o’clock this morning by a small party of men, carried about two miles from the town and shot to death in the public road.”
    Times Picayune (New Orleans), September 13, 1920

  • charles asher Dec 16, 2015

    this guy sickens me ,ive had family fought and died in the civil war and we do not repersent our flag this way..dont destroy ,the flag we love this way

    • Kevin Levin Dec 16, 2015

      Racial violence has been intertwined with the Confederate battle flag’s history from its inception.

  • Jon Tveite Mar 25, 2016

    I think it’s wrong to assume that people who have an attachment to that particular flag are racist. However, we do know that racists are attracted to that flag and have used it politically for years.

    There is no separating one person’s heritage from the racist history of the flag. Symbols don’t work that way: you can’t dictate how other people perceive a symbol you choose to associate yourself with. I could display a Nazi flag, saying I’m German and it’s part of my family heritage, but I would have to be an idiot to claim I don’t understand why my Jewish neighbors are upset about it, even threatened by it.

    That’s the discussion I would like to have with people who insist on displaying the Confederate battle flag. Symbols are not just what they mean to us, personally, and nothing more. The question becomes this: why is flying that flag of such personal significance that you are willing to disregard the concerns of others who reasonably associate it with slavery, racial segregation, and white supremacy?

    You may have a legal right to do so, but that doesn’t make it right. Living in society with others means sometimes agreeing to limit one’s actions for the good of others, for the good of society itself. You can choose to do otherwise, but what do you gain by it? Are there no other symbols that could stand for your Southern pride?

  • Billy Wetherington Dec 13, 2017

    It seems to me that lynching has been replaced by unjustified (extra-legal, except that it’s done “legally”) executions by police officers and other agents of the state.
    I don’t know why the plain white people of the South supported the secession from the union; it was not in their best interests and in fact the economic system of the antebellum South was in the best interest of neither the black slaves nor the plain white people of the South.
    I think the current economic system of the South is still not in the best interest of the “plain” people of the South whether they are black or white. For the ruled classes the “flag” of their heritage helps them forget the real heritage of the South which is still poverty, ignorance, racism, parochialism and a belief their religion is the only valid one on the planet.
    God save the Republic.

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