The Retreat of the Confederate Battle Flag Continues

A number of you emailed me a story that appeared in The New York Times about the supposed resurgence of the Confederate battle flag during the 2016 election. It is certainly an attractive narrative for those unfamiliar with its recent history.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the story. It includes plenty of examples of recent battle flag sightings around the country, interviews with flag supporters and detractors, and the obligatory interview with an academic historian. All good so far.

The problem is that the article completely misses the gradual retreat of the battle flag from public spaces in recent years, especially in the states of the former Confederacy. Its removal from the State House grounds in South Carolina is the most prominent example, but as we have seen over the past year, the trend has been much more widespread. The state flag of Mississippi no longer flies on college campuses and other municipalities have also chosen not to fly it.

In addition, local debates about Confederate monuments remain as vibrant as ever. The city of Charlottesville just recently concluded its own intensive review of its Confederate monuments. The city of Louisville will likely re-locate one of its monuments next week to another town altogether.

Donald Trump’s campaign has certainly created an environment that is welcoming of displays of the Confederate battle flag, though he is on record as supporting its removal from the State House grounds in S.C. in 2015. The meaning of the flag at these gatherings is clear and easily falls into place along side a narrative that includes resistance to civil rights, the Dixiecrat rallies in 1948, and so on right back to 1861.

But there really is no resurgence or re-emergence of the battle flag. If anything, these incidents are receiving increased media scrutiny because of the level of divisiveness witnessed in this presidential campaign. That certainly does not make them any less painful to watch or read about.

What has not changed and what will very likely not change is the continued push to remove the battle flag and other examples of Confederate iconography from public and private institutions. We are still heading in the right direction.

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19 comments… add one
  • Bill McGrath Nov 20, 2016 @ 13:33

    I guess you’ll just have to keep drilling it into your heads ,that no matter how many flags go up, and there will certainly be many more, that one day society will deny their heritage and we will all have kisses and hugs from the tooth fairy!!

  • Dixie Nov 19, 2016 @ 19:22

    I’ve seen a increase in these beautiful flags your. One thing l have saw a decrease in is Americans who believe and tolerate your leftist bigot lies.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2016 @ 2:30

      Thanks for taking the time to comment even if it isn’t entirely clear.

  • Jonathan Dresner Nov 19, 2016 @ 14:10

    But there really is no resurgence or re-emergence of the battle flag.

    Yet. If Sarah Palin’s in charge of the National Park Service…

  • Lunelle Siegel McCallister Nov 19, 2016 @ 6:07

    Keep taking them down and we’ll put 3 more up!

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2016 @ 6:31

      Thanks for the comment. I have no doubt, but the ones that go up do not have the same meaning. Individuals have always had the right to place battle flags on private property and they will continue to do so. What you will no longer see are Confederate flags representing communities in public spaces. Those days are ‘gone with the wind.’

      • Shoshana Bee Nov 19, 2016 @ 9:30

        Quote: I have no doubt, but the ones that go up do not have the same meaning

        I had not considered this before: The context in which the CBF is displayed is just as important as the fact that the flag is present.

        The flags on the roadside are a mere gelded version of the others being removed at a satisfyingly accelerated rate from community/public property.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2016 @ 9:33

          Those roadside flags have been raised over the ones removed. That is how the organizers have explained it.

        • Andy Hall Nov 19, 2016 @ 13:15

          When the Virginia Flaggers announced their first highway flag project more than three years ago, I said at the time that regardless of how they chose to frame that project, it represented a fundamental shift in their mission as well as a tacit acknowledgment that they had not succeeded in achieving their stated goals of reversing decisions and public policy in Richmond and Lexington, nor were they likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

          Nothing that has happened in the three years since has caused me to change my view on the subject.

          • hankc9174 Nov 27, 2016 @ 7:40

            I drove from Durham through Petersburg and Richmond to Fredricksburg last week and somehow missed the CBF on I-95.

            • Andy Hall Nov 28, 2016 @ 16:26

              I think that pole may have been removed. Looking at August 2016 Google Street View images, it looks like that area has been filled in to raise the grade to match that of Old Bermuda Hundred Road, that crosses over I-95. It shows up still in Google Earth aerial images from April 2016.

  • bob carey Nov 19, 2016 @ 4:39

    You have to ask yourself why would an organization like the Va. Flaggers support the President-elect when he is on record supporting the removal of the CBF in Columbia? I believe the answer is that these Neo-confederate movements have very little to do with heritage or history and everything to do with present day politics.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2016 @ 4:55

      Ya think so? 🙂 They go after Haley for her position on the flag, but you don’t hear much of anything about Trump.

      • bob carey Nov 19, 2016 @ 12:03

        I’m pretty good at stating the obvious.

    • Andy Hall Nov 19, 2016 @ 8:02

      They hear only what they want to hear, and imagine the rest. Back when he was a candidate for president, Ben Carson was asked about the Confederate Battle Flag. He compared it to the Nazi swastika and suggested its proper place was in a museum. He also said that whether or not to display it should be a locally arrived-at decision, and that people could do what they wanted on their own property — all around, an entirely reasonable response. What did the Confederate Heritage™ folks hear in Carson’s words?

      This stance sounds like Ben Carson supports the roadside battle flag strategy.

      What will be interesting to see is if Trump picks Nikki Haley for a position in his administration. The heritage crowd has convinced itself that Haley is despised and hated across the South — which I’m sure she is among their circle of Facebook friends — but there’s little evidence I’ve seen that taking down the flag in Columbia has hurt her overall approval ratings, even among Republicans in South Carolina.

      We shall see.

      • Mike Musick Nov 19, 2016 @ 11:35

        “….he is on record as supporting its removal from the State House grounds….” He is also on record as repeatedly announcing that the presidential election was rigged, so there’s that.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2016 @ 12:21

          This is true.

      • Jimmy Dick Nov 19, 2016 @ 16:57

        I am sort of hoping that Haley does get a cabinet post just so the heritage crowd squeals like stuck pigs.

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