A century-and-a-half after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, the Confederacy may finally be laying down its cultural arms. Following the horrific shooting rampage by white neo-Confederate psychopath Dylann Roof that left nine African-Americans dead in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the long-enduring Confederate flag ‘s days of flying above the South Carolina capital — the heart of the Old Confederacy — may be numbered.
As the families of Roof’s victims still mourn their terrible loss, they may be able to take solace in the fact that the cold-blooded murder of their loved ones seems to have spurred a national awakening that centuries of spilled African-American blood could not quite inspire.
In the wake of the Charleston massacre, Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s Republican governor and heretofore defender of the Rebel flag’s public display, has called for the banner’s removal. Conservatives like South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham and staff members at the right-wing National Review, who have long been champions of the Confederacy’s overt public memory, have followed suite. Even the southern-fried capitalist behemoth Walmart, yes, Walmart, land of rock-bottom prices and rock-ribbed conservatism, has decided to stop selling all-things Confederate flag. When Sam Walton’s rapacious retail Cthulhu decides to take the cultural high road, you know the times they are a changin.’
With the squeeze of a trigger and a vile racist manifesto, Dylann Roof has forever obliterated the long-festering notion that the flag’s deep connection to slavery and white supremacy can be glossed over with transparent coats of white southern “heritage” lacquer. After all, South Carolina, the first southern state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, made the Confederacy’s raison d’être clear when it proclaimed in its Declaration of Secession that, “a geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States [Abraham Lincoln], whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Following the lead of the Palmetto State — whose former Attorney General once characterized as “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum” — the Confederate South launched a rebellion that started the Civil War. As a result, between 1861-1865, 600,000 Americans lost their lives and countless more were maimed and psychologically scarred.
Most Americans associate the flag that still flies over Charleston with the Confederacy. But this flag was not the national flag of the Confederate States of America — the breakaway nation consisting of the majority of southern slaveholding states that seceded from the Union in 1860-1861 in order to protect slavery from Abraham Lincoln and his party of northern Republicans. The famous St. Andrew’s cross flag was, in fact, the battle flag of the Confederacy’s most famous fighting force, the Army of Northern Virgina, commanded by General Robert E. Lee. But it’s no surprise that a virulent racist like Dylann Roof would be drawn to this banner: it has served as a symbol of white supremacy since the day it was first unfurled in the Virginia breeze.
Its legendary status notwithstanding, the Army of Northern Virgina was an army that fought in the name of an explicitly pro-slaveholding nation, and it’s actions during the Civil War reveal much about why the Confederate battle flag carries so much racial baggage to this day.
During the June 1863 Gettysburg campaign, which saw Robert E. Lee make his second attempt to invade the North by crossing into the free state of Pennsylvania, the Army of Northern Virginia embarked on a massive “slave hunt.” For the entirety of its time in Pennsylvania, the Confederacy’s most storied army rounded up black people — fugitive slaves and free people alike — and sent them down South to be re-enslaved. In effect, Lee’s army became the biggest, most powerful slave patrol ever to exist on American soil, and it carried the flag that still flies over South Carolina’s capital. This was no coincidence. The Army of Northern Virginia, like all Confederate armies, knew that it was fighting to preserve the Southern social and economic system that rested on the foundation of black slavery, and it acted accordingly. The flag that Lee’s army flew in battle is, therefore, forever linked to the nation that it symbolized.
Many commentators have rightfully pointed out that the Confederate flag is a symbol, and like all symbols, different people in different eras have attached different meanings to it. Indeed, many white Americans, southerners and northerners alike, have embraced the flag as a generic symbol of rebellion or of “southern heritage,” which they believe has little connection to the racial oppression of the past. But the recent, post-Charleston controversy over the flag’s display on public grounds serves as a potent reminder that the past lives on in the painful — and sometimes deadly — memories of the present.
Racists have been drawn to the Confederate flag because it is a symbol of a historic rebellion born out of slavery and white supremacy. Dylann Roof not only follows in the footsteps of Confederates, but also in the footsteps of Dixiecrats like seven-term former South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, pro-segregationists, and Ku Klux Klansmen who embraced the flag as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. Like Roof, these groups didn’t adopt the flag haphazardly; they were well aware of its historical connotations. The controversy over the Confederate flag reminds us that there have always been two Americas, one black, and one white, and these camps have always espoused different notions about what it means to be American.
White Americans — both inside and outside of the South — may see the Confederate flag as a symbol of regional pride, ethnic heritage, and “rebellion,” but the flag originated in a time when one man’s freedom rested on another man’s (and woman’s) bondage. For a majority of black (and many white) Americans who are familiar with it history, the Confederate flag stands as a reminder of the darkest aspects of America’s past. It recalls a war during which a Rebel army plucked human beings from Pennsylvania soil and forced them back into a life of servitude. It also invokes historical memories of families being sold as commodities in public markets; of midnight rides by white-hooded domestic terrorists; of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on peaceful protestors, and of black churches being violated by a rain of bullets. To those Americans who were forced to stand on the sidelines of a national story that for too long favored white privilege, if not white supremacy, the Confederate flag is a symbol of a very different kind of “heritage.”
Those who casually dismiss calls for the Confederate flag’s removal as evidence of the nefarious nattering of “politically correct” sourpusses fail to understand that to display the flag on state property is to claim that it symbolizes the heritage of all southerners — of all Americans — in the same way. Yet even the idea that the Confederate flag represents “southern” heritage is a faulty notion. The Confederacy represented a mere four years of the South’s history, a history that spans multiple centuries of rich, multi-ethnic culture and heritage. Even during the Civil War, between 75 and 100,000 white southerners took up arms against their own regional kin by serving in the Union army. These included men from every southern state — except South Carolina.
The Confederate flag no more symbolizes “The South” today than it did in the 1860s, and the fact that its public display is being challenged with such force after decades of controversy is evidence that not only the South, but America as a whole, is finally ready to begin coming to more honest terms with the less-than-shining elements of its past in order to move forward to a more inclusive future. The Confederate flag will always be — should always be — a part of American history, but it should no longer be tacitly assumed to represent the history of all Americans.