AFRICANGLOBE – Amid the growing clamour for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina State House in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, we look back at the flag’s history and asks whether it’s all about heritage—or just hate.
Ten days after the Charleston church massacre, allegedly perpetrated by a man who had once photographed himself flaunting a Confederate flag, Brittany Newsome scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina capitol and ripped its flag down. Within an hour the flag was back up, but that was far from the end of the debate over its place in modern America.
For some southerners, the red, blue and white ensign, also known as the rebel flag, is a symbol of regional heritage and a tribute to ancestors who fought to enslave black people during the Civil War. For many others in America—including president Barack Obama—it’s a reminder of the ‘systemic oppression and racist subjugation’ that took place in the era of slavery.
Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, argues that some of those who invoke the ‘heritage, not hate’ mantra are disingenuous.
But he says they are right to point out there is more than one Confederate flag, and the one flying outside the capitol in Columbia was originally flown on the battlefield.
‘Without getting too deep into the weeds, the Confederacy was a new government and there was a lot of debate about what flag they should have. They had three different political flags. Those were the flags that flew over the state houses, over the Confederate capitol,’ he says.
‘The flag, though, that’s gone down in memory and we’re fighting over now was actually the battle flag; it was carried in combat. It has migrated over time to become the all purpose symbol of the Confederacy.’
On the other hand, Horwitz says the idea that the rebel flags at southern state houses ‘had been up there forever to honour the valour of Confederate soldiers’ is a myth.
For decades after the civil war, the rebel battle flag was mostly brought out at memorials, he says, and it was only in the mid-20th century that it acquired the meaning it has today: as an ‘explicit symbol of racism, white supremacy, and defiance of federally ordered integration’.
‘They were raised in the midst of the civil rights movement, pretty clearly as a symbol of defiance to integration,’ he says.
‘Nowhere was that clearer than in Alabama when George Wallace, who was really the arch segregationist of the time, raised it above the state house to welcome Robert Kennedy, who was then attorney-general, who was coming to discuss civil rights.
‘Wallace also, when he took the oath of office, was flanked by a Confederate flag as he declared, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. And I think that’s one of many indelible moments in the history of the flag’s use as an overt symbol of racism.’
Horwitz argues that the Civil War was a case where the victors did not, as the saying goes, write the history.
‘The white south militarily lost the war, but it won its aftermath and it won the memory, by creating this very romantic myth that we’ve all seen in Gone With The Wind,’ he says.
‘[The myth is of] a gentle time, of plantation life. Then the northern invaders came in and southerners proudly defended their homeland and their way of life. It was a noble defeat. They were overwhelmed but the cause was right.
‘This has really become an international lie that I think we’re finally challenging, and looking in a much franker way at the reality of what the confederacy stood for.’
Horwitz says several states that once flew the flag have taken it down from their government buildings, and in most states it has disappeared altogether.
‘In Alabama and South Carolina they crafted a compromise where it didn’t fly from atop the dome, it flew next to a Confederate monument on the state house grounds. That’s where the flag still is in South Carolina,’ he says.
The battle flag—and three other Confederate flags—were removed from outside Alabama’s capitol last week at the order of governor Robert Bentley. But Horwitz says he believes there may be a tougher fight in Mississippi, where the rebel battle flag is part of their state flag.
‘This isn’t just about politics and race, it’s about business,’ he says.
‘South Carolina has foreign car companies, a big tourism and convention business, a lot of retirees go there; they’re very eager to project a modern and welcoming image to business.
‘Mississippi has less of that and a more enduring conservative tradition. I think it’ll be a tougher fight in Mississippi, although the leading Republican politicians there have come out calling for the flag to be redesigned.’
He says the changing face of the south means a shrinking fraction of the population feel any allegiance to the Confederate flag or other symbols of the Civil War.
‘The die-hard constituency for the flag … has always been native-born, white, Protestant southerners, mostly from rural areas and small towns,’ he says.
‘That’s a diminishing proportion of the south’s population. You have people who have been pouring in for decades from the north, you have tremendous immigration from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere, so really there’s a smaller and smaller portion of southerners who feel this allegiance to this Confederate heritage.
‘I think most southerners, including most whites, are just sick of this. It’s a distraction, it’s an embarrassment, it perpetuates stereotypes about the south, and they really just want to have it buried and move on.’
While the debate has focused on the flag flying in Columbia, South Carolina, it’s also about other relics of the south’s Confederate history.
‘There are hundreds if not thousands of statues to Confederate leaders around the country—not just in the south, in the US capitol,’ Horwitz says.
‘Licence plates, street names, school names, all of these are now up for grabs. You’re going to see a state by state, city by city, county by county debate now, over what to do with all these monuments.
‘A number of southern cities are now quite liberal. Houston has an openly lesbian mayor. Many, if not most, of the major cities in the south are now Democratic. Many of them have Black mayors. I think in those places you will see a very strong movement for the monuments to come down or be reinterpreted, and certainly street names.’
He mentions the ‘grotesque’ example of a predominantly Black school that had once been named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, ‘who was not only a Confederate general, he was a slave trader before the war, and founded the KKK after it’.
‘In those instances you will see change. In small towns, in rural areas across the south, where you see everywhere these stone soldiers on courthouse lawns with inscriptions saying they fought for the purest cause there ever was—I think many, if not most, of those may remain,’ he says.
So should every statue of a Civil War general be taken down? Horwitz says he believes there’s value in leaving some monuments standing.
‘Through these statues you get a window into the mindset of the people who put them up a century or more ago and this whole cult of the Confederacy and the white supremacy that prevailed in this country,’ he says.
‘I think these monuments should remain, but there should be interpretative plaques saying this is when they were put up, this is why, and this is why many people today feel it’s wrong.’
By: Rosanna Ryan