President Barack Obama — he of the funny-sounding Muslim name and clearly Leninist politics — recently visited what can be charitably described as unfriendly political territory by arriving in Oklahoma for a series of appearances that will include the first ever presidential visit to a federal prison. Obama failed to win a SINGLE county in the Sooner State during both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Ya see, Oklahoma is the kind of place where right-wing nut-baggery flourishes so unencumbered that it elected climate-change denying homunculus James “Snowball” Inhofe to multiple terms in the U.S. senate and, in 2013, tried to ban the imposition of Sharia Law to protect good Christian folk from the hordes of crusading Jihadists that make up less-than 1 percent of the state’s population. Freedom!
Soooooo, it goes without saying that at least some Oklahomans wouldn’t be too stoked to have the Imam-in-Chief land on their Real-Murican’ soil. Thus, a brave army of about 10 former extras from the cast of Hee Haw greeted the President by waving Confederate battle flags. Now, the Confederate flag has been in the news a lot lately, what with the state legislature of South Carolina finally having it removed from its statehouse amidst a newly invigorated national discussion about the flag’s place in contemporary America. But my guess is that the 10-person Bubba carnival that waved the Rebel banner in honor of President Obama’s visit weren’t much interested in the flag’s history. Heck, a guy named Andrew Duncomb organized the flag rally. He goes by the nickname the “black rebel.” Yep, Duncomb is indeed black, and he’s about as ignorant about the flag as any alabaster argonaut who boasts that the flag is about “heritage not hate.” Plus, you know, Oklahoma wasn’t a state during the Civil War and thus, not part of the Confederacy (it was unorganized Indian Territory). But, again, heritage, not history.
It seems that Duncomb and his band of merry Rebels were far more concerned with making a statement of resistance, and, in a historical sense, they’re using a flag that has always been employed for that purpose. I’ve already written about the flag’s deep connection to slavery and racism here and here, but while the flag served as a symbol of Confederate resistance to northern Republicans and abolitionists during the Civil War era, twentieth-century conservative reactionaries also took up the Rebel banner to resist the expansion of racial equality both inside, and outside of, the South. The group of modern-day Confederates who waved the flag to protest President Obama’s visit to Oklahoma operated in this tradition of right-wing resistance to change. Yet, while these types of demonstrations flourished in the past, the pitiful showing made by the Oklahoma Confederates suggests that the flag’s days as a symbol of popular resistance really are on the wane.
The phrase “Massive Resistance” (which I include in the title of this piece) historically refers to the organized legal effort in the 1950s led by the pro-segregationist, Virginia Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. to resist federally mandated public school desegregation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. White proponents of “massive resistance” often waved the Confederate flag as a symbol of their anti-racial equality movement. Beyond Virginia’s borders, however, the notion of “resistance” has always been central to American conservatives’ efforts to beat back the expansion of rights for previously disempowered populations, especially black people, and the Confederate flag has always been along for the ride.
Among the more prominent groups who embraced the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to change were the so-called Dixiecrats, otherwise known as the States’ Rights Democratic Party. This group consisted of virulently racist southern Democrats who protested the national party’s embracing of a lukewarm Civil Rights platform in 1948 by forming a pro-segregationist splinter-party that spent all of its time whining about black people. Like the “Massive Resistance” movement in Virginia, these race-baiting Dixie delights were part of a long tradition in which conservatives have launched resistance protests against the expansion of rights to minority populations, a tradition that U.S. conservatives continue to this day.
The Dixiecrats’ 1948 Platform was a smorgasbord of reactionary goodies, with its central tenants being, “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race…We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. We favor home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights.” The platform also espoused no love for the Federal government when it declared, “We oppose the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions.”
Notice anything in there? Stripped of its explicit racist language, the Dixiecrats’ 1948 Platform reads like a laundry-list of contemporary Republican Party political aphrodisiacs. There’s the railing against federal intervention in private employment, the fetishizing of local government, and the raging against centralization. The Dixiecrats were a classic example of conservative American resistance to the expansion of rights. They used the same wrapped-in-the-flag rhetoric that modern conservatives use to cloak their circumscribing of American rights by crushing unions, opposing women’s rights to choose, opposing Wall Street reform, flooding government with plutocrat-privileging Super PAC cash, and railing against marriage equality, among other infractions. Which brings us back to the Confederate flag.
One of the major symbols the Dixiecrats adopted for their brand of race-baiting conservatism was — you guessed it — the Rebel banner. Delegates to the party’s 1948 convention proudly waved the flag (see picture above), and why not? After all, it made sense to embrace to the flag of an erstwhile nation that sought to preserve racial slavery and turn it into a mid-twentieth-century symbol of Southern racial apartheid. In every era, the expansion of rights has always been met by fierce resistance on the part of conservative factions. So it was in the late 1940s, and so it is today.
The Dixiecrats won a measly 2.4 percent of the popular vote during the 1948 presidential election, and they essentially disbanded afterwards. But their legacy stretched well beyond their time as a party. From the 1960s onward, conservative factions within the Democratic Party and then the Republican Party trafficked in watered-down versions of the racial grievances and anti-“Big Government” rhetoric that eventually helped boost the presidential victories of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and even Bill “the era of ‘Big Government’ is over” Clinton.
The Dixiecrats’ legacy of resistance to the expansion of minority rights was even stronger at the state and local levels, and it eventually helped fuel the Deep South’s transition from a bastion for conservative Democrats to a haven for conservative Republicans. The one constant in this transition was, of course, conservatism. As historian Glenn Feldman observes in Painting Dixie Red, the South’s Democrat-to-Republican political transition is not just about race, it’s also about “the fundamental continuity of the region itself.” “To a great extent,” Feldman writes, “the South has consistently gravitated toward the political party that best reflects and represents its — if not indigenous, then at least deep-seated, ingrained, and stubbornly inculcated — conservative personality and culture.”* And one of the major symbols of this popular conservative culture of resistance was, and (with some notable exceptions) continues to be, the Confederate flag.
Of course, geographically speaking, Oklahoma isn’t part of the traditional “South,” but in terms of political culture, it really is a true bastion of southern-style conservatism. This is why the site of a small band of protesters waving the Rebel flag at America’s first black President was unsurprising. By waving that flag at this President, those protestors evoked a legacy of resistance rooted in the Confederacy, but also baked into the broader reactionary crust of American conservatism itself. This kind of behavior wasn’t just disrespectful to the president, it was downright hostile. By waving the Confederate flag, those Oklahoma protesters invoked an era when this President might have been impressed as a slave to dig trenches for the Rebel army at Vicksburg. By waving the Confederate flag, they evoked an era when this President’s children could be violently refused the right to attend a school with whites. By waving the Confederate flag, they invoked an era when a political party made the core of its platform the oppression of people who looked like this President. Of course, Barack Obama is president and those flag-waving yahoos aren’t, and that must sting.
It doesn’t matter if these clowns claim that the Confederate flag “is about history. It’s not about racism at all.” History isn’t something you get to embrace with all of the bad seeds removed, it’s a strange fruit that’s full of contradictions, full of injustice, and sometimes full of hope. But there’s no separating the injustice from the hope; one begets the other. All that said, there were “about 10” flaggers in Oklahoma City, and they were outnumbered by the folks who came to support the President. It’s this fact, along with the recent removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capital-grounds, that suggests that perhaps the banner’s days as a symbol of resistance are numbered. Granted, the Right will find other symbols for their causes, but they likely won’t come with the historical baggage that bogs down the Rebel flag. The resistance is still there, but it’s not as massive as it used to be, and that’s a good thing.
* See Glenn Feldman, Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011), 3.