Tag Archives: Confederate Flag

Our Obsession With the Confederate Flag

My editor at the Atlantic asked me to revise a recent post on the DNC and the Confederate flag.  You can read it below or at the Atlantic.  I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects.  What I find funny is that the posts I’ve written for the Atlantic that could be construed as Union bashing or whatever the equivalent is this side of the Mason-Dixon Line rarely receive any kind of condemnation.  Funny how that works.  Click here for the rest of the my Atlantic columns.

Next month’s Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation’s first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region’s progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.

Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that “remnants of the Old South linger in our region — and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.” Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents “heritage, not hate.” (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland’s story puts it, “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.”)

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Charlotte’s Confederate Flag Problem

Popular media really does have a great deal of influence over how we frame our public discourse about Civil War memory.  We can see this most clearly in what I’ve dubbed the Continued War narrative, which assumes a nation divided along racial and/or regional lines.  Reporters love to utilize this narrative when discussing controversies over how we discuss the tough questions of race and slavery and especially the public display of the Confederate flag in the South.  This story out of Charlotte is a perfect example.

As everyone knows Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention in September.  The city has a need to demonstrate to the rest of the country that it is not mired in the controversies of the past, but “remnants of the Old South linger in our region – and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.”  Really?  How do we know this?  Just ask a couple of guys who still fly the flag.

“Heritage,” Barrett said when I asked why he flies the Confederate battle flag.  “Heritage,” said Kevin Wooten in nearby Gaston County, who had a Confederate flag in his yard mounted in the back of a broken-down pickup truck. Up front, an American flag flew from out of the hood where the radio antenna used to go.  “It’s nothing about no hate against anyone,” said Wooten, 55, a mechanic by trade who enjoys wrestling and drag racing. “I have black friends I care about more than some of my white friends. But … .”  There’s often a “but” when you talk about the flag.  “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too,” Wooten said. “My great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army down this way. I know a lot of people don’t like the flag, but I don’t see that as a problem.”

Of course, the reporter can’t let them get away with such a distorted view so she interviews a local history professor:

David Goldfield, a historian at UNC Charlotte, believes it’s fine to embrace your ancestors. But Goldfield, who wrote “Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History,” suggests it’s time people brought the Confederate flag indoors.  “It offends a lot of people,” he said. “I tell them, ‘If I were in your position, I might have the Confederate battle flag in my house, but not necessarily fly it out in front of my house if it offended my neighbor.’ It’s just a matter of civility. It’s not a question of who’s right or who’s wrong.”  The fact that after 12 years the NAACP is still boycotting South Carolina because it flies the Confederate flag on the State House grounds is as clear an indication as any that the flag remains divisive. Hate groups use it as a symbol. Even back when the flag was first adopted, Goldfield said, it was closely allied to white supremacy.  “There’s no debate among historians today that slavery caused the Civil War,” Goldfield said, “and that the banner Confederate troops carried into battle was supporting a nation that predicated itself on the protection and extension of slavery.”

The reporter concludes by reassuring us that the views expressed by Barrett and Wooten are not her own and suggests to her fellow southerners that it is time “we put it [Confederate flag] away.”  What we never learn, however, is how prevalent the Confederate flag is in the Charlotte area.  Does it even merit this story?  One wonders how this reporter even found Barrett and Wooten.  I can imagine her asking a colleague or friend how she might go about finding a couple of guys in the area who still fly the flag. This is nothing more than a manufactured controversy.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.

The people of Charlotte can rest easy that the DNC is not going to be an opportunity for the rest of the nation to count Confederate flags.

Whose Confederate Heritage?

This story out of Haywood County, North Carolina about the display of the Confederate flag on public ground is perfect for helping us to move beyond the popular narratives of North v. South and black v. white.  It’s a fairly straightforward story:

For years, David Crook had been making monthly rounds past the Confederate Memorial on the lawn of the historic courthouse and tucking a tiny flag into the ground at its base. And for years, an anonymous person who felt the flag carried negative symbolism had been pulling them up.  “They kept disappearing,” said Thomas Shepard, whose own ancestors fought for the South. “So we kept replacing them.”  The flag tug-of-war gradually ramped up, with a new one being put down and pulled up almost daily.  The county was forced to wade into the fray in June, when a local attorney complained about the tiny flag display and asked the county to intervene.

County officials decided to remove the flags for good and this enraged those who see the flag as central to their understanding of the Southern/Confederate past.  What I find interesting is the way in which this debate has been framed by the local newspaper.  They refer to flag advocates as “Confederate supporters” but this tells us very little about the wide range of views held by white Southerners re: their past.

Despite the heated emotions on display in the comments section of the article no one in this dispute has a monopoly on Confederate heritage.  It turns out that not all (perhaps not even a majority) of white Southerners have a deep need to see the Confederate flag on public property.  This does not imply that they hate their past or are ashamed of it in any way.  It doesn’t even necessarily imply that they have a problem with the Confederate flag.  Are we really going to argue that the UDC has turned its back on standing up for a meaningful Confederate past simply because it refuses to press the issue on the Confederate flag?  The UDC is the organization responsible for placing the marker on courthouse grounds in 1940.  Does anyone else not see the UDC as the last line of defense against the trivialization of the Confederate flag by its so-called “supporters.”  It must be upsetting to some that they can’t frame this debate along racial lines or even as a legacy of those meddling carpetbaggers.  Even H.K. Edgerton and his fancy t-shirts seem just a little out of place here.

This is just another example of why extreme flag advocates have become gradually more marginalized in the South.  It’s not because they are victims or because they are being discriminated against or even because others will not learn their history.  Their mistake is in their assumption that the flag means the same thing to all people (even white Southerners) and that it is indispensable to maintaining a meaningful connection to the past.