One of the books that I am currently reading is Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. The book tells the story of the 1912 unsolved murder of a young white woman, followed by the lynching, the execution of two innocent teenage black teenagers, and the forcible removal of Forsyth County, Georgia’s entire black population.
The county remained all white throughout much of the twentieth century. In 1987 a civil rights march of white and black Georgians clashed with local KKK members and other residents. I perused the book when it was first published and came across this stunning photograph of counter-protesters waving the Confederate battle flag.
On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about the way the flag was appropriated in 1987. Its use falls within a long history of resistance to racial integration and the maintenance of white supremacy. In fact, I have maintained all along that the meaning of the flag has remained consistent going all the way back to the very beginning of the war in 1861.
That conviction was reinforced after perusing additional photographs of the 1987 march.
What I find so interesting about this photograph is the way the memory of Robert E. Lee was invoked in Forsyth County alongside the Confederate battle flag. It’s not the memory of the Confederate general who was conflicted over the morality of slavery that is seen here. It’s not the memory of a West Point graduate forced to make a choice between loyalty to the United States or Virginia in 1861 or the postwar college president in Lexington, Virginia that these people embraced.
No, the memory of Lee that is being invoked above is that of a Confederate general, who was willing to give his life in the defense of a nation, whose single goal was the creation of a slave-owing republic built on white supremacy.
Lee and his men failed to achieve that goal by 1865, but in 1912 the children and grandchildren of these men managed to achieve the latter through brutal violence. For the white supremacists who met civil rights protesters in Georgia in 1987 it was the same fight that their ancestors had fought in the 1860s, the early twentieth century, and right through the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.
The memory of the Confederacy was never far removed.