The Confederate battle flag and racism

Let me begin by saying I’m an immigrant.  I have no axe to grind in this fight;  I’m an interested observer.

I’ve been surprised, in reading comments left by readers of my first two articles about the Confederate battle flag controversy, to find that many of those defending it as a cultural symbol have denied, in so many words, that its racist connotations either matter, or are valid at all.  Even as an immigrant, studying the history of the symbol at a distance, so to speak, I know that’s not correct.

I think the best summary of the problem is given by The Week in this article.  Here’s a brief excerpt.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond‘s States’ Rights Party adopted the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia as a symbol of defiance against the federal government. What precisely required such defiance? The president’s powers to enforce civil rights laws in the South, as represented by the Democratic Party’s somewhat progressive platform on civil rights.

Georgia adopted its version of the flag design in 1956 to protest the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregated schools, in Brown v. Board of Education.

The flag first flew over the state capitol in South Carolina in 1962, a year after George Wallace raised it over the grounds of the legislature in Alabama, quite specifically to link more aggressive efforts to integrate the South with the trigger of secession 100 years before — namely, the storming of occupied Fort Sumter by federal troops. Fort Sumter, you might recall, is located at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

Opposition to civil rights legislation, to integration, to miscegenation, to social equality for black people — these are the major plot points that make up the flag’s recent history. Not Vietnam. Not opposition to Northern culture or values. Not tourism. Not ObamaCare. Not anything else.

There’s more at the link.  I highly recommend reading the article in full.  It seems reasonably balanced to me.

I think it’s undeniable that there is a racist connotation to the Confederate battle flag in modern times, despite the fact that there was no such connotation when it was designed and originally used.  Therefore, much as I sympathize with those who see opposition to it as symbolizing opposition to their cultural values or their personal freedoms, I can also see the other side’s arguments.  I think there are valid reasons to at least restrict the display of the battle flag.  However, I agree that those reasons don’t amount to sufficient justification to ban its display entirely.

Remember, I’m talking as an outsider looking in, trying to see beyond the passions to the reality of the situation.  Is there any hope that such realities might prevail?  Not, I submit, as long as both sides refuse to acknowledge that the other does have at least some justification for its position.



  1. Thurmond and Wallace are dead as is most of their generation. With respect, if people who are using the flag now – not half a century ago – tell you that for them, it has nothing to do with racism, and if there's no reason to suppose they're lying about their motivations, they ought to be listened to.

    (Speaking as one whose ancestors fought against armies who enlisted under that flag. But that was a century and a half ago, and symbols change their meaning as time passes.)

  2. Interesting that of all the uses sited, every one was in protest of the Feds butting into what the states regarded as their business. Perhaps they are telling the truth when they say it doesn't have anything to do with slavery. Back in the early 70's I had an interesting conversation with a 98 y/o born and bred Southron Lady and the subject of Brown v. Bd. of Ed. came up. Her comment about the subject (Pardon the language, but consider that it was common in her time) was, "All those poor little n*****r kids wanted was to go to school. But it warn't no business of Washington's. Would have all worked out better without they interfering. Not as fast, maybe, but better."
    She was sympathetic to the desire for an education, but like most people didn't appreciate being forced. And her family were sharecroppers, never held slaves themselves and were treated worse than some.

  3. Let's use Georgia as an example. Its first official state flag was during Reconstruction; it had the bars of the Stars and Bars, but the whole left side was plain blue instead of the starry canton as in the Stars and Bars. It was pretty much variations on that theme until 1955, when the Confederate battle flag appeared on the state flag. It was put there by the Dixiecrats, the political wing of the white supremacy movement. The Klan, the movement's armed wing, embraced the battle flag at about the same time; it hadn't been a major Klan emblem before. Strange coincidence, that.

    It can take a long time for that kind of symbol to really change its meaning.

  4. We are seeing similar issues here in Australia, with this difference…… the Politically Correct are declaring that even so much as flying, wearing or displaying our National Flag is a demonstration of racism.

    I beg your pardon?

    Evil people have a long history of hijacking and abusing symbols to try and give themselves an appearance of legitimacy and respectability. If we abandoned every such symbol in a fit of paranoia, we would have very few left. That includes the National Flags of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Also the Cross of Christ!

    Evil people also have a long history of trying to tear down such symbols as an attack on the morale of those for whom those same symbols have meaning.

    By rushing to destroy such symbols ourselves, we are playing into the hands of the latter and giving too much power to the former. This is deeply unwise.

  5. Somewhat what Peter W said. It's not even the flag that's being fought over, but the next symbols. One only has to look at what the priest collar has come to be symbolized in the minds of many to see what happens when a symbol isn't fought for.

    Yeah we could get rid of the stars & bars, but that's not where things will stop. After all, Christians symbols are on the list of many people as oppressive. That's what this battle is all about. You either fight these cultural forces now, or you'll fight them later.

  6. Shelby Foote nailed it: That war defines us still.

    Did Roe v. Wade settle the abortion issue?
    Do we really think the gay marriage ruling will settle that issue?
    Or will it open up a new can of worms, like the attack on religious liberty that is shaping up now?

    Force leads to resistance. Especially in the US. This country was founded in a rebellion to unjust force, and it is in our national DNA to resist. The south was settled by Scots and Irish. Resist much?? Texas was founded in rebellion to a tyrant. It's who we are as a nation.

    Those who were comfortable under the chains stayed where they were. Those who rebelled came here.

    "I'm not taking this anymore." That's who we are. On both sides of every question. Even (maybe especially) when we are in the wrong.

  7. That battle flag, created and used simply as a position indicator during battles,ought to be a symbol of the courage and determination shown by Confederate soldiers. They fought very hard and, as one writer said, ate grass and acorns before they quit. As such,the flag would seldom have been displayed. Unfortunately, intransigent segregationists began using it in the '50s and '60s as a symbol of their defiance of federal law. A number of other people were, and still are, inclined like it simply as a return insult to self-righteous northerners who act as if racism were a uniquely southern phenomenon. I felt that way, sometimes, in my younger years.(Cast the beam out of your own eyes, New York, Boston, Los Angeles,etc.) Even without the perversion by the Klan and others, I would not fly the flag except at a re-enactment; and I would not display it, any more than I would wear a Silver Star or a Marine uniform. It's a symbol of brave and desperate acts that I didn't have a part in, acts done by men most of whom didn't own slaves and were commenting acidly that it was a "rich man's war, but a poor man's fight". Its a piece of history that belongs on monuments and in museums, not on state capitols.

  8. Peter,
    Remember that history books are written by the victorious. The men who died fighting for that flag will never get a chance to tell you why they fought.

    The emotions now associated with the flag are corrupted and distorted and wholly owned by those who now spew this twisted version of "anti-hate", which is nothing more than a re-branded version of the same hate.

    Now, because the victors wrote the history, I believe the flag should not be flown. The men who fought for that flag are shamed by the lies spewed at us from the mainstream media.

  9. Three thoughts. First, the people who fly the flag today for racial reasons, there aren't that many but I do know a few, are not thinking about slavery. They are thinking about an idealized version of the Jim Crow period. Almost none of them were even born during that time but they "remember" the good old days before "everything went crazy". They look at Baltimore burning and think "Boy, that didn't happen in the good old days". Actually it did, and worse, but not in constructed memory. The yearning for and idealization of a Golden Age seems to be hard wired into human beings. Second thought, as a mental exercise, and a guide to future conflict, try to isolate a specific critique of the CBF that does not apply as much, or more, to the national flag of the USA. Third, being a born troublemaker, in the late 60s and early 70s I would show up at leftie rallies and wave a large CSA national flag (the real one). Not one person ever recognized it. It got nothing but blank looks and the occasional clenched fist salute and "Viva Fidel, Venceremos!" in reply to which I would just smile.

  10. Peter,

    It may have disappeared before you arrived, but once upon a time
    in America there was an attitude of "I will defend unto death your
    right to say that with which I disagree", and "the cure for bad
    speech is more speech, not less speech".

    Losing that attitude was a necessary first step to where we are
    now, both nationally and Tor-wise.

  11. As a born Southerner – the negative reaction to the use and display of the Confederate flag is hype and tribal signaling. (So is the use, largely.)

    It is easy enough to determine if a person is acting with bigotry – one only has to look at what they do. To assume that a person will act in an unjust manner because of the headcloth they wear, the symbol on the chain around their neck, or the flag that they hang in their window – that's prejudice, and stereotyping, and we would say ugly things about it if we applied the same standards to people of dark skin or who wore skullcaps.

    We should react with some vigor to people who do act unjustly and who engage in stereotyping. We should NOT assume that people will act in a certain way or think a certain thing, just because of how they dress, what they eat, where they worship, or what history inspires them. A man with a clerical collar should not be assumed to be a child molester, simply because (a small minority of) other men who wore that collar were. Likewise, we should take people at their word and assume that they are telling the truth when they assert that "Southern Pride" is rooted in "you ain't the boss of me" rather than "darkies are dirt".

    There is room to consider if "hidden racism" lies at the heart of "Southern Pride" – but that is a task for each person to undertake on their own. Your efforts at urging me to re-examine my (alleged) racism is likely to result in a verse-quoting war about beams and motes.

    – Kerani

  12. However, I agree that those reasons don't amount to sufficient justification to ban its display entirely.

    Not to get too stroppy about it, but no such justification can exist. I'm a polite scientific agnostic, but I've said on previous occasions that "Freedom of Speech is my religion". Mostly I've said it in response to claims that the drawing of Muhammed is offensive to certain person's religious sensibilities, and therefore should be banned. Well, restrictions on speech are offensive to mine.

    I'm not from the south… but the best way to get me to sew my own copy of the CSA Battle Flag if necessary, and fly it publicly, would be to ban it. 😉

  13. "I think there are valid reasons to at least restrict the display of the battle flag. "

    This is why we should have closed the borders in 1800. Every wave of immigrants has had "valid reasons" to destroy the freedoms left to us by the Founders.

    I have one very valid reason to keep flying the flag, MY right to freedom of speech.

  14. "Remember that history books are written by the victorious. The men who died fighting for that flag will never get a chance to tell you why they fought."

    I disagree with both of those statements.

    History is written by, well, anyone who wants to write about history. And that includes many southerners who fought in that war. Which leads me to…

    Men who died fighting for that flag – and many more who survived – did indeed tell you why they fought. Many wrote memoirs and diaries that have survived. Try "Company Aytch" by Sam Watkins for a good book written by an ordinary soldier who fought for the Confederacy. Other, more prominent people wrote just as well. The diary of Mary Chestnut, the wife of one of South Carolina's senators during the secession crisis is another.

    If you want to know why the southern states seceded, just go read the various ordinances of secession. They are primary sources and all are right there online for your convenience. The "victors" haven't suppressed a word of them. There was no need to.

    IMO The entire Confederate Flag controversy is just another brouhaha ginned up by the MSM. However, having said that, I also recognize that though some people revere that flag, others are offended by it. It has a long history, but ultimately it represents a government that no longer exists. Therefore it should not be flown at government facilities. (I would make exception for appropriate things such as monuments, cemeterys, and museum displays.)

    On your own personal property, as far as I'm concerned, fly whatever flag you wish.

  15. I have asked why, if we want to get rid of flags that have "bad connotations," we haven't gone after the Jolly Roger? (The traditional "pirate" flag, the black one with a white skull-and-crossbones).

    Contrary to what you see in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, pirates were not just fun-loving, freedom-loving jolly rovers. A lot of the pirates of the "Golden Age of Piracy" (roughly 1680-1720) or of the last big outbreak in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars would have fit right in with the modern Somali pirates. And some of them (Francois L'Ollonais, to point to an admittedly extreme example) were homicidal psychos who belonged in Arkham Asylum, not on the quarterdeck of a ship.

  16. It might also be worth pointing out that anyone who writes a historical article crediting the Democrats with the move to civil rights (as this one does) can't be trusted. The Republicans have always been the party of civil rights, from their founding as the party to protect blacks from slavery and women from polygamy to the present when they oppose government special treatment for people of any race or sex and support the right of self defense.

    The Democrats were the party of keeping black people down until mid 20th century when enough black people started voting to make the Democrats interested in what they wanted. It became a fight when enough Democrats moved to the Republican position to allow civil rights to be enforced.

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