Staking Out a Position on the Confederate Flag

On more than one occasion I’ve recommended John Coski’s wonderful book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. There is nothing else like it. Coski offers a very readable and balanced view of the history of the flag. Toward the end, Coski offers his own interpretation of how to move forward with the debate over the public display of the Confederate flag. It involves compromises from all parties with a stake in this ongoing drama over history and heritage.

The flag’s effectiveness as an expression of an ideological tradition subverts its legitimacy as a publicly sanctioned or sponsored symbol. If even a minority of vocal flag loyalists regards the flag not merely as a memorial to Confederate dead but as a living testament to the power of anti-federal ideology or the symbol of a still-living Confederacy, it is difficult to defend the flag as a neutral, apolitical symbol that everyone should learn to respect. Why should people who have gained by the defeat of the Confederacy and the expansion of federal power be compelled to recognize a symbol that proponents tout as representing the values of states’ rights and opposition to the federal government? Because the battle flag is associated so closely with the Confederacy and with a states’ rights agenda, it symbolizes hostility to the rights and well-being of those who benefited from the defeat of states’ rights in the 1860s and again in the 1960s….

A suitably moderate position would recognize the Confederate flag as an American symbol with an inevitable place on the American landscape–without, however, allowing it to be displayed as a symbol of sovereignty. Descendants of Confederate veterans who wish to display the flag to honor their ancestors should favor a return to the practice, prior to World War II, of displaying the flag only as an unambiguously historical or memorial symbol. They should resurrect an older, intellectually consistent understanding of protecting the flag from desecration. This does not mean banishing the flag from public view. Confederate heritage groups should be free to use the flag in their functions, including Memorial Day observances, parades, and ceremonies commemorating important anniversaries–knowing, of course, that it still may be the target of protest from people who believe that it is wrong to honor anyone or anything associated with the Confederacy. But instead of urging everyone to keep it flying everywhere, flag advocates should censure any use of the flag that is not unambiguously memorial or historical in nature. Those who truly regard the battle flag as a sacred war memorial for Confederate ancestors should oppose its use on T-shirts, baseball caps, and other popular culture items that trivialize its meaning. Such use of the flag may be consistent with contemporary culture and protected by current interpretations of free speech rights, but Confederate heritage groups should use their free speech to curb such use, not to encourage it….

Flag critics in turn must be more tolerant of the flag’s presence as a war memorial and historical symbol. Because of the flag’s association with the Confederacy and its use by modern groups intent on reviving the Confederacy, critics will remain suspicious of anyone who displays the flag, even if it is not publicly sponsored or political in nature. But in a culture that is willing to tolerate so much that offends so many people in the name of free speech and free expression, the offensiveness of the Confederate flag is not sufficient reason to censor it… Flag critics must (for practical as well as for ethical reasons) become more willing to distinguish between a Ku Klux Klan rally and a Memorial Day parade. Confederate national flags belong in publicly sponsored displays of historical flags, just as they do not belong on contemporary symbols of sovereignty. Americans must learn to accept displays of the flag that merely acknowledge the Confederacy’s existence. The Confederacy is an important part of American history, and it behooves everyone to study it and understand it in all its complexity. Flag displays that remind people of this complex history nourish rather than poison the public dialogue. (pp. 301-03).

There is a great deal that I am in agreement with. My own opposition to the Virginia Flaggers’ proposed flag off I-95 has nothing to do with wanting to see Confederate flags completely removed from public view. I expect to see them at places such as Oakwood and Hollyood Cemeteries as well as other historic sites in the Richmond area. I expect to see small flags along Monument Avenue and other historic sites in the Richmond area. This includes the memorial chapel on the VMFA grounds, where the Flaggers’ movement began a few years ago. I’ve never had a problem with a Confederate flag flying in front of the chapel, though I have on more than one occasion expressed frustration with the way this group has gone about voicing its concerns as well as with the targets of their more recent protests.

That said, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts should sit down with Susan Hathaway and see if a resolution is possible. The chapel itself is a physical reminder that Confederate veterans once made the surrounding grounds their home. If ever a Confederate flag was appropriate it is at the chapel. So, let’s RETURN THE FLAGS AND RESTORE THE HONOR even if we agree that the Flaggers themselves have done a poor job of articulating what exactly this means.

In contrast, this proposed I-95 flag has nothing to do with history or heritage and has everything to do with the Flaggers’ lack of success thus far and desperation for increased attention. It smacks of a lack of creativity. There are so many historical settings in the Richmond area in which to honor the Confederate soldier and its leaders that to suggest that there is a need for a highway flag is simply laughable.

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23 comments… add one
  • Michael Rodgers Sep 7, 2013 @ 5:11

    1) In addition to reading Coski’s wonderful book, those who are interested in this topic should also read K. Michael Prince’s book, Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys! : South Carolina and the Confederate Flag.

    2) Everyone wants to preserve artifacts. When we are talking about a newly-made giant Confederate flag flying over I-95, we are not talking about an artifact.

  • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2013 @ 4:00

    It seems as though VMFA has spent a large amount of money on preseving an artifact from Virginia’s Confederate veterans, the chapel. As a museum, why do you think they have to do more? I visit museums all the time that display artifacts from a wide variety of countries. No one suggests those museums “compromise” with ethnic interest groups and fly those countries’ flags on the grounds of the museum, even though the flags may be displayed in context within museum exhibits.

    By making the chapel a point of controversy, the flag obsessives will make it something that the general public views as less worthy of preserving and as a place to be avoided. As cultural institutions face declining budgets those interested in the chapel would do well to endow its preservation and operation.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2013 @ 4:09

      You make a very good argument.

      We are not talking about an “ethnic interest group” but the history of men who occupied this location. The flag would have plenty of historical context, which is rarely the case these days. It also shows that we don’t have to always get bent out of shape over its presence as Coski suggests.

      • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2013 @ 4:39

        I see the flaggers as an ethnic interest group. The fact that they are white does not mean they don’t have an ethnicity. I read their materials and they openly assert a Southern identity. Other Civil War related groups, like CWRTs do not.

        Since you refer to a need for a compromise among all the “parties” and they are the party you seem to be referring to as the antagonist with which VMFA should compromise, I stand by my analogy. In fact in your discussion of who should be at the table for the compromise talks, you refer only to the VMFA and Susan Hathaway, who is the spokesperson of what looks to me like an ethnic heritage organization.

        There is a tendency in the US to think of white people as “the people” and non-whites as “ethnic” or “minorities” or “special interests”. For me, there is no difference between white ethic organizations like the flaggers and non-white ethnic organizations except in their politics and openess to those from outside the group. I work with ethic interest groups throughout New York on a daily basis, I have received awards from many of them, and I value their contributions to civic life.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 7, 2013 @ 5:48

          I tend not to see them as an ethnic heritage organization, though I do think it depends on how one identifies members given their rhetoric. Karen Cooper, who as you know is African American, is a Flagger. Perhaps there are other blacks who support the Flaggers activities. I don’t know.

          Your position is certainly reasonable.

          • Patrick Young Sep 7, 2013 @ 6:22

            As per Karen Cooper: I have been a member of several Latino groups, even though I am of Irish ancestry. Last year I was the official host of a major Korean event. My presence does not lessen the identification of these groups as ethnic interest organizations.

            The flaggers seem much more like an ethnic organization than like any historic preservation group I’ve worked with.

            I have been in genuine historic preservation groups like “Friends for Long Island Heritage”. These groups did not make appeals to “upholding honor” or describe ancestry or identification with inherited cultural norms or ethnicity in their literature. In fact, since I live on Long Island where the original Anglo-Dutch settlers have been largely replaced by descendents of Jewish, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Latino and Asian immigrants, few of those who work so hard to preserve the past have any genetic or ideological identification with the people of that past era, yet they want to preserve the history of our shared place.

            When i have some time, I’ll try to put together a few ideas on the damage the flaggers are doing to the chapel.

        • Michael Rodgers Sep 7, 2013 @ 8:14

          It’s an interesting analogy; you might be able to use it as a good viewpoint. Like everything, it can get crazy if you follow it to crazyland. Here’s some commentary on how the Southern Legal Resource Center wanted people to write in Confederate-American on the 2010 census.

        • Billy Bearden Sep 7, 2013 @ 10:44

          For a few years now, I have been keeping tabs on a hardy band of folks who, once citizens of a southern nation, a separate country but were defeated by their neighbors to the north. Forced to either integrate into that new society or flee, they chose exile.

          They took their flag with them, and have made it a flag of their heritage. I very much sympathize with their cause.

          Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag

          This group has over 200 such proclamations and resolutions.

          • Jimmy Dick Sep 7, 2013 @ 11:33

            Actually, the people of South Vietnam were forced to live in a dictatorship that had no regard for their lives or rights. The people of South Vietnam wanted to be part of the larger Vietnamese nation and fought for independence against the French and won that war. Unfortunately, idiots in the West were too obsessed with Communism and prevented any form of elections to be held because the people in South Vietnam would have voted to voluntarily merge with their neighbor to the north. As a result well over a million people died and the entire region was blasted in a war that should never have been fought.

  • Billy Bearden Sep 6, 2013 @ 5:11


    You are welcome to share your thoughts here, but don’t think for a minute that you will be permitted to make accusations without any type of documentation. You are free to edit your last comment along these lines. Thank you.

  • Elizabeth O'Leary Sep 5, 2013 @ 6:55

    As the retired VMFA associate curator of American art and having curated its permanent outdoor exhibition there about the R.E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Soldiers’ Home, I’d like to respond to assumptions and suggestions posted here. I do not speak for the museum nor have I consulted with anyone there in writing this. I do add, at the end, the museum’s official public statement on the issue. For those interested, I am a southerner and descendant of a Confederate veteran who fought with the 35th Alabama regiment—including the bloodbath under John Bell Hood.

    • There are now and have been several Confederate flags at the Confederate Memorial Chapel (open 4-5 days a week, admission free). Various types are on view inside this historically significant building, including images in the stained glass windows. There is also a freestanding didactic panel picturing and interpreting the history of the Confederate national flag (all 3 versions) outside the Chapel. This was put in place with the outdoor history exhibit, April 2011, before the Va. Flaggers organized.

    • There is a freestanding flagpole on museum grounds near the Chapel. It bears the U.S. flag and the flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia, flown in tandem. Based on protocol, it is highly unlikely that this state agency would add a Confederate flag to fly alongside them.

    • The museum administration did indeed meet with Susan Hathaway on October 31, 2011. After respectfully listening to her requests, VMFA shared the museum’s position (policy statement below) and ongoing initiatives in interpreting Soldiers’ Home history. In an online posting that evening, Ms. Hathaway denounced the museum’s position as “hogwash.” Then and since, she and flagger reps have restated their key demand that VMFA mount a Confederate battle flag on the Chapel exterior—a practice begun in 1993 by the local SCV camp that leases the Chapel and offers tours at the site. The museum, as owner and steward of the Chapel, has been equally firm in its decision to keep the appearance of the structure historically accurate—sans flag(s)—but also with the added commitment of retaining Confederate flags within.

    • In my opinion, the possibility of productive dialogue faded by late 2011 with the intense escalation by the flaggers of rampant hostility toward the museum. This has resulted in a harassment campaign that, including the gauntlets of flags through which many visitors and staff must walk, spreading misinformation and name calling on site and online, bombarding employees and board members with nuisance e-mails and calls, (the group provided links to a web portal that facilitates anonymous accounts), and on occasion making calls to and protesting outside private residences. Such activities have been detrimental to “easy” resolution.

    • VMFA’s mission, mandated by the Commonwealth, is to operate one of the nation’s finest comprehensive art museums. It does this successfully and to national acclaim. Despite flagger claims otherwise, VMFA also continues to honor the history of the site. In fact, the museum has just submitted a nomination of Robinson House to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (The Chapel is already so designated.) This nomination is based in great part on the half century that this antebellum farmhouse served as the administrative headquarters for the Confederate Soldiers’ Home. Also, as announced this summer, VMFA will begin a multi-million dollar restoration of Robinson House early next year. Slated to open 2015, it will feature an in-depth exhibition about the Soldiers’ Home.

    • Come and spend quality time at VMFA: outside to visit the beautiful grounds, the Chapel, Pauley Center (former Home for Needy Confederate Women) and—in the future—Robinson House. And come inside the museum (admission free) to view world-class art, including the American art galleries that feature important Civil War themed paintings, photographs, and sculptures as well as artworks made by former Confederates including John Elder, William D. Washington, and Moses Ezekiel. And contact the museum staff to learn about interpretive projects, current and future.

    • In fairness, there is no need to echo the flagger’s misleading motto (especially boldface and all-cap) to restore either flags or honor at VMFA. Both are present there already!

    VMFA policy statement (drafted fall 2011):

    The museum takes seriously its responsibility to preserve the Chapel and its place in history and has
    devoted more than $250,000 towards its care and maintenance. Such work includes a new roof as well
    as the restoration of one of the stained glass windows that, incidentally, pictures a battle flag.
    Confederate battle and national flags are currently displayed within the Chapel where their historical
    significance is interpreted by local representatives of Lee Jackson Camp, No. 1, Sons of Confederate Veterans.

    VMFA is not only aware of the history of the site, but actively interprets the compelling story of the
    Robert E. Lee Camp, No. 1, through public tours, a link on VMFA’s website, and outdoor signage. In
    addition to the state historical marker and a bronze sign designating the site as the Confederate
    Memorial Park that VMFA placed on the grounds in the 1950s, three new illustrated signs were recently
    installed that mention this designation and tell the story of the Soldiers’ Home. A fourth sign near the
    Chapel, facing Grove Avenue, interprets the Confederate national flag. The text and images for these
    panels were reviewed by leading scholars as well as historians at the state Department of Historic Resources.
    Representatives of Lee Jackson Camp No. 1, SCV, also reviewed and approved these signs before they were mounted.

    In preparation for the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the museum undertook
    extensive research into the history of the grounds. A review of documents and images dating back to
    the time of the Soldiers’ Home and through subsequent decades after the Commonwealth acquired the
    property in 1941 reveal that no flags hung from the Chapel. Battle flags were introduced to the façade
    when Lee Jackson Camp No.1, Sons of Confederate Veterans, began leasing the chapel in 1993. When
    renewing that lease in 2010, VMFA asked that the flags be removed, which returned the historic
    structure to its original appearance. In so doing VMFA continues to comply with all laws and regulations
    of the Commonwealth.

    The museum’s goal is not to ignore history, but to interpret it accurately. VMFA will continue to
    endeavor to be a good steward of its site and preserve an important part of Virginia’s history.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2013 @ 8:39

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I certainly don’t blame the VMFA for their handling of this situation and I am not surprised by how Hathaway responded to your meeting. It reflects the Flaggers’ narrow view of Confederate heritage. Here they have an incredible building and rich history and all they seem to worry about is whether there is a flag flying out front. The building itself ought to be enough, but apparently it matters little w/o flag. I was so impressed on my recent visit to the chapel. The windows are beautiful and there are plenty of artifacts that could be highlighted as reflecting the site’s rich Confederate heritage.

    • Michael Rodgers Sep 5, 2013 @ 12:26

      Thank you Elizabeth O’Leary for all these specific details and also for including the bullet point “There is a freestanding flagpole on museum grounds near the Chapel. It bears the U.S. flag and the flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia, flown in tandem. Based on protocol, it is highly unlikely that this state agency would add a Confederate flag to fly alongside them.”

      I agree that the proper protocol is not to mix historical and sovereign flags in displays. Thus Brooks’ specific suggestions are not workable. His reasonableness and Kevin’s and yours are, of course, exactly right.

  • Michael Rodgers Sep 4, 2013 @ 12:05

    Just to say that the Rev. Joseph A. Darby, 1st Vice President of the Charleston branch of the SC State Conference of the NAACP (in the Post and Courier yesterday) seems to agree with Coski’s middle ground that the only rule for government-sponsored display is unambiguously historical, not confusingly sovereign. Thus the reason that these problems don’t get solved is not because flag critics haven’t done their part. The reason is because too many of the flag supporters want not to solve problems but to cause them.

    • Andy Hall Sep 4, 2013 @ 14:09

      The distinction between the flag as a symbol of sovereignty and as commemoration really lies at the heart of the matter. How, though, does one convey that to these folks? Or is sovereignty the real message, clothed in rhetoric about commemoration?

      • Billy Bearden Sep 6, 2013 @ 7:54

        My dear sweet friend Andy,
        You well know that the 1861 Va State Flag, the 2nd National Jackson Flag, and the RE Lee HQ flag did fly and was requested to fly on a few select city light poles for the Virginia State ‘Lee-Jackson Day’ ESP since Lexington is the place made most famous by and the final resting place of Robert E Lee (Washington-Lee University, Lee Chapel) and Thomas Jackson (Jackson House, VMI)
        It is wrong of you to say anything of us about wanting ‘sovereignty’ reasons. Perhaps you have some ‘documentation’ for your wild claims?

        • Andy Hall Sep 6, 2013 @ 8:02

          It was a question, not a claim. But it does seem to me to be a fair question, given the rhetoric of some folks who describe themselves as “Confederates,” who insist that the South has been under Yankee occupation for 150 years, and who refuse to acknowledge allegiance to the U.S. flag or government. For those folks, I genuinely do believe that at some core level, they view the Confederate flag as a symbol of sovereignty, even if they don’t articulate it that way.

  • M.D. Blough Sep 2, 2013 @ 13:14

    It’s like its use in Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia used the Battle Flag there and the entire town was part of the battlefield.

  • Michael Rodgers Sep 2, 2013 @ 11:53

    It’s tough because a flying flag strongly suggests a declaration of sovereignty.

    There are ways to display the flag without flying it. And there are ways to fly the flag to clearly indicate a commemoration and not anything else.

    At my SC Statehouse, we fly the square out in front, every day, alone, next to a Confederate monument. It’s a confusing situation.

    In contrast NC flies the 1st only on the holidays and Alabama’s flying is over to the side in a clear monument-connected and non-sovereign way. I wish SC would follow either path.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2013 @ 11:57

      Flags were meant to be flown and under the right circumstances there is no reason why it can’t happen on this particular site. Brooks offers a few suggestions and I suspect there are plenty more out there that could work. Flying it on the highway is another story entirely.

      • Michael Rodgers Sep 2, 2013 @ 12:18

        Yes flags are meant to be flown: from a fixed pole to indicate sovereignty or to be part of a collection for some clear non-sovereign purpose or from a carried pole to mean many different things under many different situations.

        I can’t speak about the museum site. I second your fondness for Coski’s book. I have no problem with flags carried in a commemorative parade. Thank you.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Sep 2, 2013 @ 10:30

    The situation with the VMFA and the chapel would seem to be easy to resolve. Erect a single freestanding flagpole, and fly the current US flag above the ANV banner. Otherwise, go with three flagpoles, with the US national colors flying highest, followed by the Virginia state flag, and then the ANV flag.

    I’ve never understood the failure to reach the middle ground of reasonable compromise on this issue.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2013 @ 10:32

      Excellent suggestions. I can imagine any number of compromise positions that would satisfy all parties involved.

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