Persistence of controversy over the Confederate flag

Last week, when I speculated about reasons why there hasn’t been a National Slavery Museum in this nation until the one slated to open in 2007, I mentioned the power of Confederate sympathies that still persists even to today in much of the South. Basically, in the eyes of many, the Confederacy has been romanticized, downplayng the brutality of slavery upon which the economy of the South was based for so long. Another example has cropped up in the Senate campaign of Senator George Allen (R) in Virginia:

The Confederate battle flag still stirs passions – reverence in some, fear and loathing in others. And it continues to intrude into politics, notably in U.S. Sen. George Allen’s re-election campaign. Allen, R-Va., has been dogged by tales of how he wore a Confederate flag pin and hung the flag in his home and elsewhere in his earlier days. When Allen tried to distance himself last month from those Confederate sympathies, he was assailed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Why? Why, in 21st century America, does the relic of a short-lived, long-gone political entity still provoke such feelings? And who’s right? Does it represent a noble defense of American liberties, or is it a banner of hatred and bigotry?

An interesting question. John Coski, author of The Confederate Battle Flag – America’s Most Embattled Emblem explains:

To different people at different times, it’s been a memorial to revered ancestors, the mark of white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, an all-purpose symbol of opposition to government, the emblem (affectionately or scornfully) of the redneck or good ol’ boy, or simply a shorthand icon for the South in general and its sectional pride.

Or just a good-looking design, with its striking, star-spangled X. “This is a logo that any corporation would die for,” Coski recalls artist Jim McElhinney saying at a museum symposium.

To a lot of people, the Confederate flag has morphed into a symbol of being a “good ol’ boy,” simply a matter of regional pride, its darker connotations forgotten. That’s probably why many white Southerners seem shocked and offended when reminded of the flag’s darker connotations to African Americans and othrs. They literally “rallied around the flag” when efforts to remove it from statehouses in several states gained steam years ago. A little more history:

What most people think of as the Confederate flag – the one with the big X, or St. Andrew’s cross – was the battle flag carried by many of the Confederacy’s armies, notably Robert E. Lee’s storied Army of Northern Virginia. (The original battle flag was square, though it is often reproduced in rectangular form.)

It was not the national flag of the Confederacy, a fact Confederate heritage groups like to point out. It’s meant as a tribute to the courageous Confederate soldier who fought and suffered for what he believed in, they say.

“It’s true that it was a symbol of bravery and valor. But the battle flag is not just that,” Coski said in an interview last year after the publication of his book. “It does, for better or worse, carry the burden of all the things we associate, for better or worse, with the Confederacy.”

Even while the war was going on, his book relates, the battle flag began supplanting the original national flag (the so-called Stars and Bars) as Southerners’ preferred emblem of their cause.

Coski’s research supports some of the flag defenders’ arguments. He documents that Confederate heritage groups like the SCV have a long history of condemning hate groups like the Klan.

“Flag defenders ask, not unfairly, why do we allow the Klan to define the Confederate flag?” he said.

Also, such hate groups have been as likely to wave the American flag as the Confederate one, if not more so. “Not until the 1930s or ’40s did the Klan begin to use (the Confederate flag) in a systematic, ritualistic way,” Coski said. Slavery existed under the U.S. flag – and was sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution – far longer than it was under the Confederacy, the heritage groups also note.

On the other hand, black Americans who are repelled by Confederate symbolism also have ample historical justification for their feelings, Coski said.

“Civil rights leaders came to view the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism,” he wrote, “because they encountered it in situations in which white people intended it as a symbol of racism.”

In the years following the Civil War, the flag was an emblem for many Southerners of “The Lost Cause,” which conceded slavery was dead but still asserted white supremacy, the book says. In the 20th century, those fighting for black people’s rights often saw it in the hands of their opponents.

The most important period in the flag’s post-Civil War history was the late 1940s and the 1950s, according to Coski. It was a time when the Confederate flag leaped back into the national consciousness, in contradictory ways.

First, the flag re-entered politics when it spontaneously became the symbol of the 1948 “Dixiecrats,” the Southern Democrats who broke with the national party over President Harry Truman’s support of federal civil rights legislation. “When the federal government challenged the status quo in the South, Southerners reached for the symbolism of their grandfathers,” Coski said.

Shortly after, an odd “flag fad” sprang up. All sorts of people – even some Northerners – began flying the flag or using it as a decorative element.

Coski even suggests a strategy for minimizing conflict over this difficult symbol:

In the last chapter of his book, he offers a suggestion. First, people on both sides need to realize that just because the flag has a certain meaning for them, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same to other people.

“Critics (of the flag) need to make a distinction between a memorial parade and a Klan rally. Do not give in to your emotions and attack every time you see a Confederate flag.”

For their part, Confederate heritage groups should grant that their flag does not belong anywhere where it implies sovereignty, such as part of a state flag.

Indeed. Seeing a Confederate flag doesn’t much bother me, but it shouldn’t be displayed where its presence implies government endorsement of it as a symbol. In the end, it amazes me that this symbol still has such potency over 140 years after the end of the Civil War.