The Confederate battle flag inspires, shall we say, some passionate opinions among different groups of Americans. To a particularly weird contingent of neo-Confederate apologists, including the various branches of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the flag symbolizes “Loving the South and defending its culture, symbols and heritage.” These groups go out of their way to separate the Rebel flag from its historical associations with slavery and racism and claim that the emblem merely represents their love of all-things Dixie. To other groups, however, especially African-Americans, the Confederate flag is a historic symbol that invokes the legacy of slavery and racism that defined the American South for generations.
So who’s in the right here? Does the Rebel flag today merely serve as a symbol for historically illiterate Bubbas to wave in the name of “Heritage, Not Hate?” Or, does the flag still symbolize slavery and racism — basically the two worst things about the Old South? The answer is both complicated and straightforward.
Yes, people of different generations have attached different meanings to the Confederate flag to the point where, on one hand, it’s now little more than a generic symbol for rebellion that fuels a decidedly tasteless bumper-sticker and bikini industry. But on the other hand, the Confederate flag emerged at a very specific point in American history. It served as the military emblem of an army whose government, the Confederate States of America, waged a treasonous war against the United States in the name of defending, upholding, and perpetuating racial slavery. This is the real history of the flag that makes many Americans (justifiably) uncomfortable, and its a history that will forever be linked to the stars and bars.
The flag’s historical association with slavery and racism has always made it a banner controversy (oh yeah, that pun was intended). Case-in-point: Talking Points Memo recently reported that students and alumni of Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia have signed a petition to bring back their stars and bars-clad “Rebel Man” mascot. The move has proved controversial, but proponents of bringing back the mascot claim that “The Rebel Man was never intended to embark racism or start any kind of political controversy, but only to represent our city’s history.”
Unfortunately, the history that “Rebel Man” is intended to represent is quite loaded: Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederacy after it was moved from Montgomery, Alabama in early 1861. Knowing this full-well, one Freeman High School student echoed a familiar (and tired) refrain when he claimed that, “Since Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, a Southern soldier really represents us as a school…This Rebel Man does not represent racism or slavery.”
Of course, whether or not that student believes that Confederate imagery “does not represent racism or slavery,” the fact remains that the rebel flag and its associated symbolism historically represents a breakaway nation whose “cornerstone,” as explained by its vice-president, Alexander Stephens, was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Based on this “cornerstone,” the majority of the slave-holding southern states formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 as an explicitly white-supremacist nation dedicated to defending the right to own black slaves.
And just how dedicated to slavery were the Confederate States of America, you ask? Well, consider the fact that the Confederate Constitution was, for all intents-and-purposes, a virtual carbon-copy of the American Constitution, but with a crucial difference: it had provisions clearly defending the right to preserve slavery. While it’s true that the American Constitution in its original form was essentially a pro-slavery document (it did have that whole three-fifths clause, after all), the framers of the Confederate Constitution went out of their way to make sure that NOBODY on earth could EVER deprive the South’s of its hard-working and EXTREMELY under-paid labor force.
Article I Section 9(4) of the Confederate Constitution reads that, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” That’s pretty straightforward, innit? But the fun doesn’t stop there! Article IV Section 3(3) reads that, “The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and… In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”
You get all that? Basically, the Confederate Constitution not only protected slavery, but it also protected the right to perpetually extend slavery into any new Confederate territories FOR-EVER. Don’t believe me? Then read the dang thing for yourself! These Rebels were in the slavery business for the long haul, folks, and this is the uncomfortable fact that some contemporary Americans want to gloss over when they claim that you can wave the flag of a nation dedicated to slavery and white supremacy while simultaneously denying that said flag has anything to do with slavery and white supremacy. Sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that.
But debates over the appropriateness of displaying the Rebel flag in public settings aren’t likely to go away any time soon. As historian John Coski writes in The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (a book I referenced in an earlier post about the flag’s legacy), “Even though the battle flag was the banner of a people striving to break away from the Union and protect the institution of slavery, those people were Americans.”* This means that the Confederate flag is also an American symbol, and it stirs high emotions precisely because it invokes the negative issues of slavery, racism, and inequality that are supposed to be contrary to American ideals but for which hundreds-of-thousands of Americans gave their lives in battle.
The Rebel flag makes us uncomfortable because it symbolizes a time in history when half the country took the worst aspects of American society and tried to form a new nation dedicated to those aspects. But it’s too easy to blame only the South here; after all, throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, racism and white supremacy were American values, not merely southern ones. Even though the Union won the Civil War, the Federal government wasn’t exactly committed to full-on, post-war racial equality, and the northern states didn’t exactly become havens of racial tolerance in the decades following the Confederacy’s demise.
Thus, the Rebel flag is controversial because it reminds Americans of a racist set of values that were once widely held; the South was just more honest about holding them. Nevertheless, the fact of widespread American historical racism is no excuse to blindly claim that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism and slavery. History is clear about the flag’s unfortunate connotations, and it’s a history that you can’t separate from the stars and bars. There’s plenty of other symbols of southern pride that ALL southerners — and all Americans — can get behind (like sweet tea; damn that stuff’s good), so let’s leave the Confederate flag where it belongs: to history.
* See John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 293.