From a physical standpoint, Alexander Stephens made a rather ironic spokesman for the superiority of the white race. Standing 5 feet 7 inches in height, Stephens wasn’t terribly short or tall by 19th century American standards, but he possessed a frame more suited to a 12 year old boy than a grown man. Weighing a shade under 100 lbs soaking wet and perpetually in bad health, Stephens looked like a young Southern Benjamin Button. With his well-worn, yet somehow puckish features and his spindly limbs peeking out from underneath his two-sizes-too-big suits, Stephens truly looked like a man who was aging in reverse—a small child living in a shriveled old man’s body. Upon first encountering him, Abraham Lincoln described Stephens as, “a little slim, pale faced, consumptive man,” but went on to say that whatever physical deficiencies he possessed were more than outweighed by his skills as an orator.“[Stephens] has just concluded the very best speech, of an hour’s length, I ever heard”, Lincoln wrote in the winter of 1848. “My old, withered, dry eyes are full of tears yet.”
13 years after Lincoln first heard him speak, Stephens took to the stage at the old Athenaeum in Savannah to deliver a speech that would justify the praise lauded on him in easier days by the newly elected President of the United States and to outline in no uncertain terms the causes and conditions that had led the country to the brink of civil war. It was March 21st when Stephens spoke—the first full day of a spring that both the speaker and the captive audience filling the Athenaeum beyond capacity surely felt was being mirrored in the birth of their new nation, the Confederate States of America. When Stephens, who had just been elected as the vice president of this new—yet unrecognized—nation, spoke to the people of Georgia that night, he did so in the uneasy limbo that lay between the formation of the Confederacy and the hostilities at Fort Sumter that would signal the start of the Civil War. Just 10 days earlier Stephens and other members of the Confederate brain trust had put the final touches on the country’s constitution and the newly elected vice president took it upon himself to explain to his people the raison d’etre of the Confederacy. What followed was the now infamous Cornerstone Speech.
An old tintype of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens
The Cornerstone Speech got its name from a line in Stephens’s oratory that left no doubt as to why the states of the lower South had seceded. After describing slavery as, “the immediate cause of [this] late rupture and present revolution”, and going on a long diatribe about why Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers were fundamentally wrong in their presumption that the enslavement of African Americans was a moral and political evil that would eventually fade away, Stephens told the assembled crowd that,
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
There is no ambiguity in such a statement. Just as there is no ambiguity when Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession states that, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world” or when Jefferson Davis, in his farewell speech to Congress, proclaims that his home state is leaving the Union because“the theory that all men are created free and equal [has] made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions.” Any man or woman who endeavors to argue that anything other than slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War is simply engaging in that magical thinking promulgated after the fact by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy in order to create a narrative that not only lionizes the actions of the Confederate soldier, but serves as a tool to promote the aims of white supremacy.
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.
A photo of the South Carolina Confederate Centennial Commission from 1959
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.