Today, in the wake of what appears to be a tipping point in the public acceptance of Confederate iconography after the brutal murder of 9 black parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston by a self-avowed white supremacist, there are many who are trying to keep alive the fallacious notion that the Stars and Bars is about anything but the representation of a failed state created out of the desire to maintain the peculiar institution of slavery. Such a strange notion is based on the idea that the Confederate flag represents some sort of nebulous Southern heritage or inheritance that is miraculously divorced from the ubiquity of slavery in antebellum Southern life. However, even if we grant these modern day Southern patriots the premise that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with mass enslavement of black life that was the impetus for its creation, the argument that the Confederate flag is free from the stain of racism falls apart under the weight of history.
Contrary to popular wisdom, use of the Confederate flag as a symbol for Southern pride is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. For most of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era South, the flag was used sparingly, normally in parades honoring Confederate veterans and their kin or in monuments associated directly with the Civil War. All of the furor over the Confederate flag flying outside the South Carolina Statehouse would lead one to believe that it had been there since time immemorial, but actually, the first time the flag was flown at the Statehouse was in 1961 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Civil War. The raising of the flag was introduced by John May, a state representative from Aiken, SC and chairman of state’s centennial commission who called himself “Mr. Confederacy” and wore a Confederate uniform to meetings. The flag was only supposed to fly for the week following the April 11th anniversary of the Civil War’s centennial. Today, despite the brave efforts of activists like Bree Newsome, the flag still stands.
Any doubts one might have about the reasons behind the hoisting of the Confederate flag outside the Statehouse should be allayed by remarks given by Senator John D. Long on the occasion of the centennial at the then still segregated Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston. On that evening in 1961, Long gave the crowd before him a brief synopsis of his perceived history of the post-Civil War South, telling them that, “Out of the dust and ashes of War with its attendant destruction and woe, came Reconstruction more insidious than war and equally evil in consequences, until the prostrate South staggered to her knees assisted by the original Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts who redeemed the South and restored her to her own.”
That is the “Southern heritage” that is represented by the Confederate flag. It is an ideology sprung forth from the fears of Southern whites during the Civil Rights Era in an effort to stave off integration and promote a culture of white supremacy. It is not an accident that Alexander Stephen’s native Georgia only changed the design of their state flag to include the Confederate flag in 1956 in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and it is not mere coincidence that George Wallace’s campaign for Governor of Alabama only became festooned with Confederate flags after he changed his stance on race relations from one of relative moderation that earned him an NAACP endorsement in a failed 1958 run to one proclaiming“segregation forever” in a successful bid 4 years later.
Towards the end of his Cornerstone Speech, Alexander Stephens remarked that, “With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.” That, my friends, is what the Confederate flag represents. That is its genesis. That is its history. That is why Dylann Roof claimed the Confederate flag before he claimed the lives of Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the 8 other black men and women of his congregation who died in the bosom of Mother Emanuel. That is why the flag must come down.