Struggle to comprehend Confederate past continues
The Top Story by Chris Graham
You see a Confederate-flag bumper sticker on a truck in a parking lot or on the highway, and already you have some ideas in your mind as to the identity of the person who put it there.
“Nowadays, you’re not going to see a $30,000 SUV going down the street with a big Confederate-flag bumper sticker on it. It’s not the affluent elite who tend to celebrate their Confederate heritage. It tends more to be the ordinary working-class guy. And so you get really a lot of snobbery from people trying to put down the hillbillies, the lintheads, the peckerwoods. There’s a social-class thing, I think, involved – the idea that anyone who would wear a Confederate-flag T-shirt is a lowdown, ignorant redneck, and so therefore they’re fair game,” said Robert Stacy McCain, an essayist and author and assistant national editor of The Washington Times.
The marginalization of the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Confederacy and the Old South and those who hold them in reverence is a relatively recent phenomenon – and one that McCain said is tinged with politics.
“You don’t have to believe that race relations in the South are ideal in order to say that it’s unfair to stigmatize Southerners the way that this ongoing crusade against Confederate symbols has tended to do,” McCain said. “Grant that the dispute over slavery was the sine qua non of the Civil War – but by granting that, that does not mean that every farm boy that picked up a musket and went marching off was some kind of war criminal. Which is the underlying propaganda point, I guess you could say, of the anti-flag campaign.
“What we’re seeing here is like the novel 1984 – let’s just put down everything down the memory hole and just forget about actually what happened in the past. It’s almost like watching Trotsky being airbrushed out of the old Soviet propaganda photos during the Stalin era. I think it’s really an attempt to rewrite history for some sort of contemporary political advantage – and I think there’s a politicization of history involved that’s very unfortunate,” McCain said.
“You can study the history and have different ideas about the past – but if you don’t study all the history, if you don’t have a more or less comprehensive view, and you have a sort of dumbed-down, simplistic, fairy-tale view of the past, where all the morals are clearcut, and all the bad guys wear black hats, and so on and so forth, if you have that kind of view of history, it’s sort of an intellectual handicap. Because of course history is much more complex than that,” McCain told The Augusta Free Press.
Southern history is, of course, more complex than many would want to concede it to be. That’s part of the reason we’re still fighting the Civil War 140 years after Vicksburg and Atlanta and Richmond – with the Stars and Bars as a proxy.
“Focusing attention and energy on this particular symbol wouldn’t necessarily bring us to the point where if it weren’t for both sides having a stake in it,” said Robert E. Bonner, a Michigan State University professor and author of Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South.
“The people who support the flag see this as an opportunity to have something specific to the South to add to the list of perceived assaults of political correctness and disregard for tradition – and also sort of meddling by government. I think that, for instance, one of the things that is really driving this forward is the resurgence of distrust of outside authority that has a lot to do with the transformation of the Republican Party in the South, it seems like – and ironically, because the Republicans are the party of Lincoln. The people who are, I think, most likely to cling to the flag are the same people who have responded enthusiastically to the Republican Party. You see a groundswell of defense of heritage at the forefront in the 1990s and into this decade,” Bonner said.
“In terms of the people who are leading boycotts and objecting to the public display of the flag, there’s energy on that side, too. The best way I’ve come to understand that is to locate this in the aftermath of the successful redefinition of national ideas about civil rights. So the people who are pushing for rethinking American history to include African-Americans have sort of won that battle – with the recognition of the civil-rights movement and the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday and those kinds of things. That’s something that we understand – the centrality of race in American history and Southern history,” Bonner said.
“We better understand Southern history as being more than what was centered on white experiences. And the Confederate flag represents that – because it in many ways sort of collapses the history of the South into being the history of white Southerners. So pushing back is what I think the boycotts are about – it’s a sign of achievement in redefining American history and also in trying to redefine Southern history, to make sure that people know that when they’re talking about the Confederacy and equating that with the South, they’re really not equating that with the whole South, but only half the South,” Bonner said.
“The flag is a useful sort of launching pad for that sort of debate – because nobody looks at what the number of stars means, or what does the color blue mean, or what does the diagonal mean. Nobody talks about those things. Everybody talks now when they discuss the flag what it has been used for. So it’s an empty symbol in a lot of ways. If you wanted to find out about what it has been used for, other than what the actual substance of the symbols mean, you can pick and choose whatever you want. You can do the same thing with the American flag, if you want,” Bonner said.
“When you take apart the symbol, and you only relate it to what people have used it for, since people have used it for a lot of different things, you can be very selective. You can look at only the noble uses of it, or you can look at only for the white-supremacist uses of it – and in either case, make the case that those uses define the totality of it. That’s why there’s an unwillingness on either side to see the fact that it is an open symbol that has existed in a lot of different ways,” Bonner told the AFP.
And in line with that train of thought, there is no getting around the fact that the flag has been used over the years to symbolize white racism, said Stephen Longenecker, a history professor at Bridgewater College.
“The flag represented white supremacy during two important moments in American history – during the Civil War, and then segregationists revived the flag during the civil-rights struggles during the ’50s and ’60s. So in one really blunt, straightforward way, the Confederate flag represents white supremacy. In another way, maybe in a more subtle way, it’s also racist because people who want to fly the flag in public almost pretend that African-Americans don’t exist – that the South is all-white,” Longenecker said.
“You have to ask yourself this question: Does the Confederate flag represent Southern heritage? Well, it doesn’t represent black Southern heritage. It just represents white Southern heritage. So in a subtle way, it’s racist – in that it’s insensitive,” Longenecker said.
“Are these people who are insensitive, are they at the core racists, or just very uninformed? Sometimes there’s a little bit of both. Some may be a little more racist, and others may be just clueless. But I think the flag represents racism in a subtle sense, too,” Longenecker told the AFP.
“Racism is a factor. People don’t ever want to say that, and a lot of people deny it – but there is a lot of crossover between people who support the Confederate flag and people who are not particularly happy with the sort of post-civil-rights-era South. I think that has to be said. I don’t think that’s all there is to it, but I do think that’s part of it,” said Grace Hale, a history professor at the University of Virginia.
“People always talk about it in terms of they’re debating symbols and a history that has to do with the Civil War and the antebellum South – but in fact, those symbols have had many, many different meanings since the Civil War, most pointedly, ideas that are attached to the more virulent kinds of white supremacy. So it’s not impossible to say that those symbols don’t carry the weight of that history that has happened in the 140 years since the Civil War,” Hale said.
“Even if it’s OK to invoke pride in the Confederacy, which I’m not sure that it is, those symbols don’t just evoke that. They evoke the Klan in the 1870s. They evoke the other night-riding organizations that were created in the 1880s and 1890s after the Klan was banned. They evoke the lynching epidemic of the 1890s. They evoke the rebirth of the Klan in the teens and ’20s. And the film ‘Birth of a Nation.’ And the spread of the belief in an Aryan nation. And anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Catholic sentiment. And they evoke the 1950s and the fight against desegregation and the fight against the civil-rights movement. Those symbols have all those meanings – and it’s disingenuous to say that it just means what it meant to somebody carrying it in 1864. It doesn’t. We’ve lived all these years since,” Hale told the AFP.
But just because the Confederate flag has been used by groups advancing messages of hate doesn’t mean that the flag itself should be viewed through that narrow lens, according to Walter Williams, a George Mason University professor and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and African-American.
“First of all, the war of 1861 really was not a war about slavery, it was a war about what the Confederacy saw as abuses of the United States Constitution by the Congress,” Williams said. “When people say that the Confederate flag is a flag of racism and a symbol of slavery, it’s very important that people recognize that all of the slave ships flew under the United States flag – not the Confederate flag. There wasn’t a single slave ship that flew under the Confederate flag. So if people are looking at symbols of the transportation of slavery, they might want to criticize the United States flag.
“The people who are making this argument that the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism are misleading people – and many people are gullible,” Williams said. “Many people don’t know anything of the history of the War Between the States. They think that you had all these poor white folks who did not own slaves who were fighting the North so that the South could keep slaves. That’s just plain nonsense. Relatively few people in the South owned slaves.”
“I guess the whole hubbub about the Confederate flag is a way to exploit people’s emotions,” Williams told the AFP.
“This is really a trumped-up political thing,” said Clyde Wilson, a University of South Carolina history professor and the editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. “If you look back, it’s not very long ago that the flag was shown without any protest. There’s a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt making a speech in front of a huge Confederate battle flag. And I’m told that Harry Truman had a big picture of Lee and Jackson. I’ve seen pictures of Jimmy Carter with a Confederate flag.
“I think certain people decided to make an issue of the flag and got people worked up about it – and started putting pressure on politicians about it. In a sense, to me, this is a sort of artificial controversy,” Wilson told the AFP.
But is it simply a public campaign organized by people with political motives that is at play here? Or is there something to be said about the changes in Southern society in the past few decades that could be at work with the changing views of the Confederacy and the Confederate flag?
“Part of the answer is because for a better part of a hundred years after the Civil War, white Southerners essentially had a monopoly on how the Civil War was discussed and commemorated in the South. And it’s really been only since the 1970s that white Southerners have had to deal with the countermemory, the alternative version of history that African-Americans have. And so what is going on in the South is really just in the last few decades – the first experience that many Southerners had with pluralism, by which I mean coexisting with people who view the past and politics and the nation’s history in very different ways than they do,” said Fitzhugh Brundage, a professor at the University of North Carolina and the editor of Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory and Southern Identity.
“The South has changed so dramatically in the past half-century – and it’s not as though it stops,” Brundage said. “Because it used to be that the question of pluralism in the South was whites and African-Americans coming to terms with one another. And now it’s, well, in Virginia, there are sizable immigrations of Asians of one kind or another, as well as Hispanics. And here in North Carolina, there’s a huge Hispanic migration. So now there are schools named Robert E. Lee High School that have majority African-American and Hispanic populations – which I suspect 50 years ago no one would have ever anticipated.
“There are folks you could call neo-Confederates who are motivated by an understandable desire to honor their ancestors – and so those folks are concerned about the memory of a group of people who they see as Confederate heroes,” Brundage said. “Their motivations, I wouldn’t say, are so much about today, except that some of them are concerned that the memory of their ancestors is being twisted. But I certainly think there are others. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, just as one organization, was not a terribly significant organization in the South, and certainly didn’t attract a lot of public attention, really until the 1980s. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was the much, much more important organization. It’s really been in the last 25 years that the Sons of Confederate Veterans has not only been able to grow its membership, but sort of achieve some sort of standing in the public light by defending Confederate heritage.”
“Within that organization, I think there are some whose motivations are simply commemorative, and there are others who unquestionably, unambiguously, have a political agenda, which is profoundly conservative. And so they are concerned about the past and the present, unquestionably. I think the same would be true for the opponents of Confederate symbols – that they are, I think, motivated by a concern that the continuing popularity of Confederate symbols is a testament to what they see as the persistence of racism in American society,” Brundage told the AFP.
No end to the debate
This isn’t just a debate for academics who like to chew on esoteric topics – it’s tangible and palpable and ongoing in the real world.
Earlier this month, for instance, a Waynesboro High School student was thrown out of class for wearing a T-shirt featuring a Confederate battle-flag emblem. And last week, a Confederate-heritage group went public with its concerns over the actions of Virginia Sen. George Allen, who responded to criticisms about a high-school-yearbook photo of him wearing a Confederate-flag pin and reports that he once displayed a battle flag prominently in a home with a Sept. 12 speech in Washington, D.C., to a group of black educators in which he essentially capitulated.
“The point is, symbols matter, they should matter, and this is something that I wish I learned a lot earlier,” Allen told the group. “Even if your heart is pure, the things you say and do and the symbols you use do matter because of the way others may take them.
“What I appreciate, and wish I had sooner, is that that symbol, which for me was fit for simply rebelling against authority, and for others was fit for pride in heritage, was and is for black Americans an emblem of hate and terror, an emblem of intolerance and discrimination,” Allen said.
“The denunciation of the flag to score political points is anathema to our organization,” said Brag Bowling, a member and past president of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which held a news conference last week to express its feelings of frustration with Allen over his remarks.
“His own slip of the tongue and now-infamous macaca statement has led to a full-scale attack on the battle flag and its meaning. The Confederate-heritage community did not make those comments that many have deemed offensive, and the flag should not bear the brunt of his poorly spoken words,” Bowling told reporters.
In an interview with the AFP after the news conference, Bowling made clear that the Sons of Confederate Veterans were not themselves trying to score political points.
“We’re not endorsing any candidate in this election. Our message is that Virginia’s history and heritage is sacred – and we’re tired of politicians who for their own political motives will ignore the lessons of history and demean the Confederate battle flag and use it to pick up one or two percentage points in the votes,” Bowling said.
“When Allen badmouths the flag, he’s trying to appeal to 1 or 2 percent of the minority vote, maybe get some of the soccer-mom vote. But he’s losing three times as many voters by doing that. We’re tired of the Confederate flag being used as a political football. It’s too sacred an object for that. Men died under that flag. We feel it’s our duty to stand up for it when it’s being manipulated and used,” Bowling said.
Kirk Lyons, the founder and chief trial counsel of the Black Mountain, N.C.,-based Southern Legal Resource Center, is fighting the same fight in courtrooms across the South.
“Generally, we think that banning the flag from classrooms, as you’re seeing there in Augusta County, causes more disruption, causes more racial tension, not less, and that if principals would use their counseling staff to, one, target any potential troublemakers, and every school has them, and do something toward defusing any prejudicial notions that faculty or students may have about Confederate symbols, they could probably ease the problem and let the flag go back in without too much trouble,” Lyons told the AFP.
“Whatever a student’s views of the Confederate flag are, if he understands, and if he is told, Look, this student over here is wearing this flag not because he’s showing any disrespect to you, he’s wearing it just because he’s honoring his ancestry, if you put it that way to most students, most students will understand that. And if they have any prejudicial notion about the flag, that could be dispelled. But what most schools, teachers and principals do when they ban the flag, they are content to leave the student body in ignorance on what the offending student means by wearing the Confederate flag. They don’t want to make any effort to educate the student body as to why that kid might be wearing a Confederate flag on his shirt,” Lyons said.
“By banning the flag without any explanation, they tend to stigmatize and demonize these kids who wear Confederate flags as racists. That, to me, is irresponsible,” Lyons said. “We’ve seen that in some cases – where kids have been picked on after the flag has been banned, and they’re not wearing the symbol, kids have been picked on, and in some cases assaulted, because they’re basically stigmatized as the school racist now. And they have no way to defend themselves – because the flag is banned, and a lot of kids make the assumption that if something is banned, it must have been banned for a good reason.”
Given the stakes, it is hard to foresee an end to the debate over the Civil War and the symbols of the Confederacy that divide us still generations after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
“In the past, folks who felt that way thought that, Well, eventually, we’re going to get behind this. And so at some future date, people just won’t be fighting this battle anymore,” Brundage said. “But I think one of the points is that the struggle, as the South becomes so much more politically diverse and socially and culturally diverse, the struggle is over whose definition of what it means to be Southern is going to prevail. So in a sense this issue will continue to be revived as long as that question hasn’t been answered.”
“I don’t think we’re going to get past it anytime soon,” Hale said. “I think, in fact, because we don’t make a clear enough distinction between public-supported symbols versus a kid wearing a T-shirt to school, I think that actually increases people’s desire to use those symbols as a sign of rebellion. The fact that they’re considered taboo, and people aren’t allowed to do it, actually makes it more attractive. That’s part of the problem, I think. It’s creating more of a problem to prevent it, I think. I’d like to see us make a clearer distinction between the display of these symbols in a public space and a public venue, a supported use of these symbols, versus the private use of these symbols.”
“It’s a volatile debate precisely because it’s people from within trying to grapple with how the region remembers itself,” Bonner said. “I think the history has such a more central part of how Southerners understand their place in the world than it does in other parts of the country. And it’s a conflicted history – full of a lot of contentious issues that draw forth a lot of emotions.
“A lot of people think, This is just silly. It’s just a symbol. Why can’t people get over it? My take on it is that it’s precisely because it’s seen in the context of the longstanding regional concern for the past that creates the present – that’s precisely why we have this ongoing conflict,” Bonner said.
“There’s people at all levels who find themselves arguing and fighting about this. It has gotten sort of wrapped up in some larger constitutional issues that have received support on both sides. There are legal defense funds for heritage-preservation organizations, that have, through the Internet, quite an apparatus for seeking out efforts to ban Confederate symbols and then trying to defend them on free-speech grounds with a lot of money and lawsuits and so on and so forth. And then on the other side, there’s the NAACP and other organizations that have ways to put pressure on state governments like South Carolina, which continues to display the flag in certain ways. So it gets ratcheted up – and that’s another thing that small communities can find themselves in the middle of larger, very longstanding campaigns on both sides. These organizations are always looking for new test cases and opportunities for publicity. It’s part of the larger struggles,” Bonner said.
(Originally published 10-02-06)