Have Confederate Symbols Lost Their Political and Racial Meanings?

Earlier today I was contacted by a student in Italy, who is currently writing on the subject of Confederate symbols in popular culture. The student inquired into a few areas and I thought he might benefit from hearing from the rest of you until I have a chance to respond.

My name is — — and I’m currently a senior student in History at the University of RomaTre in Rome, Italy. Two years ago i earned a bachelor degree in modern history and now I’m preparing my final master thesis in North American History. Being half American I’m very interested in American culture and society. The subject of my thesis is “The use of Confederate symbols in contemporary southern culture”.

Being very interested in the Civil War era i discovered some time ago your blog and I’ve read with interest your articles on “The Atlantic” that I found very useful. In my essay I would like to demonstrate that in the past 30/40 years Confederate symbols have lost their political and racial meanings and have now become more a popular culture phenomenon than a real political symbol. So i was wondering if you would please answer a couple of questions on this topic, it would be very helpful:

First, I would be interested to find out if in the South or in the Deep South States the disaster of recent years as the hurricane Katrina or 9/11 were followed by the display of Confederate symbols as a symbol of grief and condolence. On this specific topic I can’t find any sources, so do you have any news about it?

Secondly, having read your articles it seems to me that you too are convinced that the Confederate symbols have lost impact since the ’70s. Is it so? What are the causes in your opinion?

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31 comments… add one
  • Ryan Nov 20, 2013 @ 5:21

    I think confederate symbols have GAINED political meaning since the civil war, especially during the civil rights era. Unfortunately these associations are often reinforced in today’s politically-correct climate to the extent that blacks and other minorities find them offensive and often without good reason.

    The predominant view of ALL whites, North and South in the mid-19th century was that blacks were racially inferior to whites. While the reasons for the war were complex, I do not deny that slavery was a big part of the picture – but this was largely an economic consideration as the South was agrarian and slavery constituted (almost) it’s entire economy. Southerners felt that they had the right to secede, as their ancestors had done 75 years before, from Great Britain.

    I do not think it is fair to apply our views and laws today to people who existed a century and a half ago. It was a much different time. I do not believe that the average Union soldier believed he was fighting to end slavery or that the average southern soldier believed that they were fighting to preserve it (at least not when the war began).

    I think it is extremely unfortunate that people in the north view the flag as they do. I grew up in and still live in Philadelphia but my soon-to-be wife is from Louisiana, the Baton Rouge area and I love the South and it’s people.

  • Victor Nov 15, 2013 @ 5:23

    The key is context. Unlike the Nazi flag, the Confederate flag changes meanings. To a lot of people it represents a harmless redneck pride. These people aren’t racists, they just never really questioned the traditional narrative of the war and the CSA. Then you have the Klan and hate groups who use it as an obnoxious way to provoke racial discord. Then you have the people who use it as a sign of political disagreement, little understanding that the CSA was not a shining example of democracy, and in my view overlooking the fact that Confederates were traitors.

    • Betty Giragosian Nov 15, 2013 @ 6:58

      I have heard the word traitor for too many times. We were not the United States of America until after the WBTS had ended. True, we were a Union that President Lincoiln wanted to preserve. I realize you have to have lived among us and have a love for our region, the Southland, before you can ever understand. You cannot possibly understand because you are not one of us. I have read about all the judgemental posts that I can stand. The CBF is a War flag, the flag of our Confederate Soldiers. It is totally wrong and ignorant to identify it with racism. This is one reason I long to see the original flags in museums, and the replacements in Confederate cemeteries, at monuments, and on the GROUNDS of the Confederate Memorial Park, the R. E. Lee Camp No.1. Old Soldiers Home, where it will be respected. I am glad I am a Southern American and have this memory to love and honor.

      • Sarah Elliott Nov 15, 2013 @ 10:42

        I’m from the south and even I don’t agree with that. Yes, what has come to be known as the Confederate Flag today does indeed represent our heritage and history. But claiming that there is no racism involved in that heritage is in itself naive. Sure, those who choose to line their bumpers with Confederate Flag stickers today are not necessarily racist, but you have to understand why others might make that assumption. You cannot deny that the Civil War was fought over racial slavery and if you’re going to flaunt that pride then that’s something you’ll just have to accept. You can’t choose to disregard that facet of the Confederacy’s history simply because it’s unpleasant.

        • Betty Giragosian Nov 15, 2013 @ 11:23

          I do deny that the WAR was fought over slavery. I have never lined car bumpers with Confederate stickers, etc. Some do. I can certainly understand that others feel differently from the way I feel. There is something so romantic about imagining brave soldiers in blue marching off to war to fight to end slavery. Flaunt my pride? I do not think so. There is no way I can explain to you the way we feel. It is born in us. Apparently, it missed you. Pity.

          • Kevin Levin Nov 15, 2013 @ 11:29

            I do deny that the WAR was fought over slavery.

            Why not move away from this way of framing the issue of slavery altogether. Better to inquire into the extent to which slavery shaped the process of secession as well as the evolution and outcome of the war.

      • Jimmy Dick Nov 15, 2013 @ 16:32

        According to the people that fought in the War of American Independence this was the United States of America as of July 2nd, 1776. Some people may have thought otherwise at some point prior to 1861 and even today, but for the men and women of the late 18th century it was the United States of America.

      • Forester Nov 15, 2013 @ 20:18

        I love the “Southland” and still acknowledge slavery as the main root cause of the Late Unpleasantness. This does NOT translate into a blanket condemnation of Southerners, however.

        Betty: Think about your parents, or grandparents. Did you agree with everything they said or did? Or did you debate with them? Perhaps even vote for different candidates, or not see eye-to-eye on a religious matter? Most people have, but it doesn’t have to chance their love or respect for their parents. Now, if there can be such difference between LIVING Southern ancestors, think what a divide must exists between you and the dead ones!

        I loved my father, but there were certain issues (conscription in Vietnam, gay marriage) I just couldn’t agree with him on. I still loved him greatly, respected him and mourn his recent passing. I feel the same way about my ancestors. They owned slaves. They believed in slavery. I don’t. We’re different people in different times with different views.

        The correlation between racism and the CBF was made in the 1940s-60s, before I was even born (heck, before my MOTHER was born). I can’t change the fact that most of the country views the CBF as the banner of “Massive Resistance.” This is a concrete fact of society, But I don’t hate the Southland or my ancestors. In fact, they had NOTHING to do with this controversy! The debate over the CBF is primarily about it’s MODERN history, and its use against blacks in the Twentieth Century. Like rapper LL Cool J said, “I see that red flag and think you wish I wasn’t here.”

        • Betty Giragosian Nov 16, 2013 @ 5:23

          Forester, your’s is the nicest comment I have ever read here. Most sound as if they were made by abolitionists or Northern Methodists. I think the CBF did become identified with Massive Resistance, which began in Virginia when Governor Almond was in office. I do believe that most people who were living then, regret that we took that route. I was alive then, having been born during the depression. Hindsight is always perfect.
          My grandparents on neither side owned slaves. One caveat-There was Uncle Albert, who died a couple of years before I was born, but was always spoken of with such love, -We have pictures of him. He lived on my grandparents’ farm. I do not know if he was a hired hand or had been a slave. I know that he stayed with my great grandmother when my great grandfather went to war. So, possibly he was a slave. I cannot believe that grandpa fought to preserve slavery.

          I can understand that African Americans do not like the sight of the CBF, Believe me, I can. I do think that hate and fear began with the civil rilghts era. when so many terrible things happened. I do not blame them. The first time I ever remember seeing the CBF was when I saw “Gone with the Wind.” Quite different from nowdays.

          The Southland does have warts, but I prefer it to anywhere else. Apparently so do a lot of other people who move here from other parts of the country. Most come to love it. Of course there are always nerds like the lawyer in Loudon county who moved here and one of his first acts was to demand the removal of the statue of a Confederate soldier on the green. I doubt that he will be well received.

          • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2013 @ 5:32

            Hi Betty,

            I just wanted to share how much I value your comments. Thank you.

            • Betty Giragosian Nov 16, 2013 @ 12:05

              Thank you, Kevin. This is the nicest thing you have ever said to me, and I really do appreciate it. Sometimes I fear I might be overbearing as it is very difficult to restrain myself.

              • Pat Young Nov 16, 2013 @ 14:08

                To the contrary Betty, you are the model of constraint.

  • Ray Allen Nov 14, 2013 @ 19:04

    Just this week I have completed a drive from south Texas through south Louisiana and ending in Mobile, Alabama and did not see the CBF displayed anywhere. I did stop in a few gas stations/truck stops where versions of the CBF were used on hats, koozies, and keychains, etc. Some of the time was spent on the back-roads of Louisiana while most of the trip was on Interstate 10. Has the CBF been relegated to novelty items?

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 14, 2013 @ 7:15

    Is it possible for a symbol associated with oppression and terror towards a group of people to lose its “political and racial meaning?” And if the Confederate flag can lose its historical effect, could the same happen to the swastika?

    • Sarah Elliott Nov 14, 2013 @ 9:21

      Of course it is. History is all about how we remember it. Take, for example, post-Civil War Reconciliation. The war wasn’t just an object like a flag, it was four years of tragedy that completely changed the course of our nation’s history. However, before long people began to disregard the racial aspect of why they fought for something a bit more palatable- honor, law and order, maintaining the Union, etc. It’s all about how we remember and interpret events of the past, and that is something that is influenced highly by the present and, thus, is ever-changing.
      And it’s interesting that you mentioned the swastika because it’s a great example of how symbols can be interpreted differently over time. The swastika was used for centuries before the Nazis requisitioned it for themselves. But before that, it was widely (and still largely is) used in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism to represent auspiciousness. So yes, it is entirely possible for the meaning of symbols to change depending on how they are utilized and how they are remembered.

  • London John Nov 13, 2013 @ 1:39

    Is there anything going on in the South just now where the CBF might be displayed with political/racist meaning? In the oldest images I’ve seen of the CBF used in that way it’s carried by mobs trying to prevent the de-segregation of Little Rock High School in the 1950s. Then it appears right through the Civil-Rights struggles.
    I’ve never seen a CBF in photographs of lynchings.

    • Betty Giragosian Nov 13, 2013 @ 7:02

      I have never seen the CBF in photos of lynchings. What a horrible thing to write . For the first, time, however, i saw the CBF carried by the KKK in a video last night I Iwatched the show on the Kennedy Years, There it was, carried by robed riders on horseback. It appeared to be in a parade. I flinched when I saw it. This is the reason the racist tag has been applied to the CBF. It was siezed by such groups and used during the civil rights era.

      • Andy Hall Nov 13, 2013 @ 7:33

        Pretty much. It got pulled out of its historical context and re-figured as an explicitly political symbol in the 1940s, and going forward into the Civil Rights Era. Don’t make the mistake (as many do) of ascribing its use in that way to fringey hate groups like the Klan. It was very widely used as a symbol by all sorts of “respectable” people.

  • Yulanda Burgess Nov 12, 2013 @ 13:19

    I am in agreement with Andy Hall: I don’t recall seeing an upward swing in Confederate symbols during our recent tragic events. I saw American flags — especially in the Arab and Farsi communities surrounding Detroit. I also don’t see a decline in the political and racial significance behind the Confederate flag. Social media has given a voice to those who are pushing their agenda to a wider audience. My observation — in my community and social environment — is that the Confederate flag remains symbolic of the preservation of slavery and terror to the black community.

  • Amy Nov 12, 2013 @ 12:30

    I’m a 38 year old history teacher in Washington state. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the Confederate flag was just something on the car in “Dukes of Hazzard”. Now, as a teacher, I observe most students readily identifying it as a racist symbol. At an area high school students were suspended for refusing to take it off their truck that was parked in the high school parking lot. Also recently, students were suspended at another area high school for wearing Confederate flag bandanas to school. Washington state was a territory during the Civil War.



  • Sarah Elliott Nov 12, 2013 @ 12:18

    That’s a fascinating thesis and I wish you the best of luck completing it. I recently came across a podcast by Dr. William Blair that I think might give you a good idea of the controversy over the Confederate flag as it exists in the US today as well as a bit of history on its usage in more modern times. Dr. Blair is a professor of nineteenth century history at Pennsylvania State University and has written extensively on the legacy of the Civil War, so he’s definitely a good source. The episode is called “Heritage or Hate? The Symbolism of the Confederate Flag.” Hope this helps!

  • Andy Hall Nov 12, 2013 @ 11:06

    I don’t recall seeing an upswing of Confederate iconography in response to 9/11, Katrina or Hurricane Ike in 2008. A big jump in U.S. flags and patriotic symbols, especially after 9/11, but not Confederate stuff.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 12, 2013 @ 12:17

      I don’t either.

  • Dr. christina Johns Nov 12, 2013 @ 10:46

    I don’t think they have lost their political significance. No, there were no displays of Confederate Flags or other paraphernalia in regard to 9/11, but I’m not sure I get the point of the question. I think if you will look at the coverage of disputes over flags in states like Alabama, you will see that they have not lost their political significance. I would never think of displaying a Confederate Flag or frequenting an establishment that displayed one. I am interested in the Civil War and the history of the Civil War, but that does not mean I support slavery, racism, or a celebration of racial hatred.

  • Betty Giragosian Nov 12, 2013 @ 10:33

    After Katrina struck the South, I steeled myself to see the Confederate Battle Flag everywhere possible. I was so pleased when I did not see the first one! But I did see the Flag of the United States of America throughout the whhole region. To me, the CBF remains what it has always been: a beloved Battle Flag of the CSA. To me, it has no racial meaning. I do think that the attempts to fly the CBF anywhere other than Confederate cemeteries, monuments and battlefields has become excessive. To me, it is sort of ‘in your face.” These are my feelings, I am a child of the south, and I have learned the meaning of racial equality. I am aware that my behavior can cast a good or bad preception of my people.

  • Pat Young Nov 12, 2013 @ 10:23

    I think that when they appear they still have a big impact in my community on Long Island. The main thing I heard people around here talking about after the Ted Cruz White House rally during the shutdown was the CBF. Even though it appeared to be only one flag, people described the rally as racist, neo-confederate, anti-American because of the flag. A lot of Jews I know also associate it with anti-semitism.

    • Steve Nov 12, 2013 @ 11:36

      The folks who compare the Confederate battle flag to anti-semitism have never read General Grants order number 11! Again ignorance!

      Southerns are to blame for this, we allowed the klan and other hate groups to hijack our battle flag without ever saying a thing, now that we are fighting to get the true meaning of the flag back to honor our Confederate ancestors, we are giving many durogatory names. neo-confederates, flaggers, heritage not hate crowd. Just to name a few. Organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the confederacy are constantly educating the public about the true meaning. Was the South perfect, no. But neither was the other side!

      • Kevin Levin Nov 12, 2013 @ 12:17

        …we allowed the klan and other hate groups to hijack our battle flag…

        As always, who is “we”? If the flag belonged to anyone it was the men who fought under it between 1861 and 65. Ownership beyond that makes little sense to me.

        • Ryan Nov 20, 2013 @ 5:00

          I think it is perfectly natural to feel some ownership and responsibility for the battle flag if your ancestors fought and possibly died carrying it.

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