Do Confederate Flags Belong in the Classroom?

This morning I received the following email:

I’m sure you’ll have an opinion on this. As you probably know, public schools are notorious for decorating the walls of classrooms. Naturally, I have a good bit of Civil War ‘swag.’ In the past, I’ve used the Confederate Flag in those decorations. It’s always in context with other battle flags of the Civil War, North and South. But given the recent events of the Summer, I’m going to scale it back a bit in display and visual interpretation. I was wondering what your thoughts were on it’s display in the classroom.

It’s a great question and one that I suspect others are considering or at least should be considering. I will make this short and sweet. Teachers have a responsibility to create safe classroom environments that are conducive to learning. Right now the Confederate flag is a toxic symbol. That means that it should not be visible in the corner of the classroom alone or even as part of a collection of flags. Beyond that it’s the teacher’s call, but I certainly would not want to risk making students unnecessarily uncomfortable or even intimidated.

I would think very carefully about displaying it apart from a carefully designed lesson plan, especially in a public school classroom. We’ve seen too many examples of lesson plans go wrong resulting in miscommunication between teachers and students and teachers and parents. It is certainly appropriate to utilize it for a lesson on some aspect of the history of the Confederate flag. I just finished an essay on how teachers can introduce the recent controversy surrounding the history and memory of the flag, which will be available in a few weeks on Heinemann publisher’s website. Of course, I will provide a link once it goes live.

Trust your instincts. If you are worried that a display that includes the Confederate flag might be problematic or misinterpreted than don’t do it.

What do you think?

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

24 comments… add one
  • Rob Baker Apr 19, 2016 @ 10:04
  • Rob Baker Aug 18, 2015 @ 17:54

    For anyone still following this post, I wrote the email. I had to rush off to a wedding (groomsman) when Kevin published this post so I did not get a chance to respond immediately. Then the first week of school set in and, well, I’ve been busy.

    Thank you for the comments and the dialogue, they were interesting. Except for David’s comment. Those are some pretty rash statements to make based on a 5-6 sentence informal e-mail, but I digress.

    Here is what I’ve come up with in regards to displaying the flag in my classroom and teaching it.

  • Msb Aug 9, 2015 @ 6:14

    You may never hear anything about this quote but I have seen it quite a lot, usually without context. If you would like to attempt to use facts to answer your question, Jimmy Dick Is right, start with Foner’s excellent book.

  • Ed Aug 8, 2015 @ 17:54

    As part of the larger discussion on race relations around the time of the Civil War, I often wonder why we don’t hear anything at all about the following.

    “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing.”

    Should we, as a nation, continue to honor the particular individual who held this attitude? Should we add a footnote of some sort to his memorials? Should we tear down his memorials and remove all mention of him from the history because of his vile attitude?

    Finally, I can’t help but wonder how many people will be totally outraged until they Google it and find out who uttered these words. I also wonder if it will change their perceptions of the individual in question.

    • Jimmy Dick Aug 9, 2015 @ 4:53

      Because you have to look at the whole and place the singular examples in context with that body of the whole. Consider the House Divided speech

      Also it helps to realize that he like most of his countrymen evolved on the question of how the black man would fit into American society. Eric Foner wrote a very good book on this called The Fiery Trial of Abraham Lincoln. You might want to read it. When you do, you realize that honoring this man is the very thing we should do.

    • Andy Hall Aug 9, 2015 @ 7:34

      I often wonder why we don’t hear anything at all about the following. . . .

      To borrow a line from Gary Gallagher, the only way one never hears about that quote is if you never read anything — or perhaps, persuade yourself that no one else has.

      Lincoln’s views on race were complex, and they changed over time. As others have suggested, a good place to start is Foner’s Fiery Trial. You’ll be glad you did.

  • Andrew Aug 8, 2015 @ 11:46

    I am a middle school social studies teacher and a strong believer in the first amendment and if someone wants to display a confederate flag for personal reasons, who am I to tell them to take it down. In a classroom setting, as long as the flag is used for educational purposes then I do not see a problem having it in a classroom. It would be wrong if the teacher replaced the American flag in the classroom with the confederate flag. The Civil War is one of the most important events in our country’s history. Using images and symbols are powerful tools for teachers. They spark interest and discussion from students. They create teachable moments. What is to gain from not using the confederate flag during the Civil War unit? I use the flag along with the Union flag among many other pictures and symbols of the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2015 @ 13:00

      The question had nothing to do with the First Amendment.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2015 @ 13:01

      I never said that you shouldn’t use the flag. Go back and reread the post.

      • Andrew Aug 8, 2015 @ 15:29

        I did not believe you did. I was responding to other comments to that question. You did mention that if should not use it if using the flag would be problematic. My thoughts are to display the flag as part of a unit or lesson. Make the flag a point of discussion and a teachable moment.

  • David Aug 8, 2015 @ 5:34

    I believe a teacher, (no indication of grade either?), would have to be crazy to hang a confederate flag in his/her classroom. In a power point presentation, where it’s there to view momentarily, OK…….but to hang one on a wall is insane. I don’t think it would be prudent, or at all necessary, to hang ANY csa flag in the teaching of the war. You don’t need to hang a swastika on a wall to teach about WW2.

    • Andrew Aug 8, 2015 @ 12:13

      I understand your point about not needing to use the swastika to teach WW2 but I do not agree. The confederate flag plays a different role in American history from the swastika. A responsible teacher does not promote the flag but introduces it as part of the Civil War unit. I teach about the Mormon trail but I do not promote the church. I teach the Scopes trial but I do not promote either creationism or evolution. My role is to give my students the information and the skills to develop their own educated viewpoints.

  • woodrowfan Aug 8, 2015 @ 5:24

    I use a lot of artifacts when I teach. Among them is a “Colored Only” sign. I don’t display it among the other artifacts in my office but I do use it in lessons…

  • Boyd Harris Aug 7, 2015 @ 9:09

    I’m not a high school teacher, but have used both the Stars and Bars and the Battle Flag in my powerpoint presentations to college kids. Of course, when I display the flag, it usually either in a painting or a picture of an actual historic artifact (i.e. the flags on display at the MOC). But if you are creating a wall collage of history in a High School classroom, what about using the Stars and Bars? It does not have the toxicity of the CBF and could also provide an educational moment to discuss the plethora of flags used by the Confederacy and their meanings during the Civil War and after.

    That being said, I do believe in making classrooms safe environments…even while I attempt to destroy preconceived notions of the past. 😛

    • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2015 @ 9:22

      But if you are creating a wall collage of history in a High School classroom, what about using the Stars and Bars?

      Definitely an option. Students might be surprised to learn that the Confederacy utilized a number of different flags.

  • James F. Epperson Aug 7, 2015 @ 8:56

    If I were teaching a unit on Civil War history, I might want to use a number of famous paintings or extracts from paintings to decorate the classroom, and I would not feel the need to exclude any that showed the CBF. Similarly, I would not be the least bit hesitant to decorate the room while teaching about WW2 with images that might include Nazi iconography such as the swastika.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2015 @ 9:08

      I might want to use a number of famous paintings or extracts from paintings to decorate the classroom, and I would not feel the need to exclude any that showed the CBF.

      This is what I was getting at when I suggested that anything beyond a replica flag is the teacher’s call. My classroom in Virginia had a very strong Civil War theme and included a number images with the Confederate flag. I don’t believe that every image would come down had I still been teaching there, but I would certainly be giving it some thought. I hope other teachers give it some thought.

    • Jonathan Dresner Aug 7, 2015 @ 12:10

      Displaying for pedagogic purposes, I understand. “Decorating” though…
      I admit, as a college instructor, I don’t have either the luxury or responsibility to construct my teaching space. But I would be extremely chary of putting either of those kinds of symbols up, even in an artistic context, before contextualizing them with the class.
      Even mocking/hostile depictions — satire and humor often don’t translate well across time and culture — can be very problematic without context. (I’m thinking of Geisel’s WWII cartooning, for example, or 19c political cartoons)

      • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2015 @ 12:18

        I agree. Thanks for the comment, Jonathan, and nice to hear from you.

  • Annette Jackson Aug 7, 2015 @ 8:49

    Absolutely agree with you Kevin. When in doubt, leave it out!

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 7, 2015 @ 8:47

    “Right now the Confederate flag is a toxic symbol.”

    I agree.

    “That means that it should not be visible in the corner of the classroom alone or even as part of a collection of flags.”

    I disagree. More than ever, this is an opportunity to educate, and to do that without the flag is a missed opportunity. I am using it almost every day in the public classroom, i.e. a historic site.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2015 @ 8:54

      Hi Eric,

      We agree that teachers ought to embrace this opportunity to educate.

      … and to do that without the flag is a missed opportunity.

      I didn’t say that it should not be in the classroom. What I did say is that it is the responsibility of the teacher to introduce it at the right time as part of a carefully planned lesson. A classroom and historic site surely overlap in certain respects, but in other ways the present their own unique challenges. Thanks for the comment.

      • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 7, 2015 @ 9:42

        Agreed, especially that the classroom and a historic site have their own “challenges.” Thanks for the thought provoking post. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *