As many of you will be aware, last week the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case pitting the state of Texas against the southern “heritage” organization Sons of Confederate Veterans. The case centers on the state’s extensive vanity plate program and whether its Board of Motor Vehicles has the right to reject messages on those plates that it deems offensive. The issue arose in 2011 when the Texas division of the SCV proposed that the state produce license plates stamped with the SCV logo, which includes at its center a replica of the Confederate battle flag.
After some initial hemming and hawing, the Board of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposal on the grounds that “a significant portion of the public associates the Confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.” The SCV sued the state of Texas for violating their constitutional rights of free speech, Texas countersued, and in the end the case—Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.—made it all the way to the nation’s highest court. A decision is expected sometime in June.
The controversy strikes me as having at least three distinct dimensions, each fascinating in its own way. First there is the constitutional question of whether the free-speech rights of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been violated. Second is the historical question of what the Confederate battle flag has symbolized over the past century and a half. Finally there is the moral question of how the law of love might speak to the dispute.
I’m far from an expert in constitutional law, so I’m going to pass over the first question, even though it is the one that dominated the opposing arguments before the Court last Monday. (For what it’s worth, among the dozen or so pieces I’ve read about the case, I think that this one does the best job of succinctly summarizing the issues before the court, while this one is best in laying out the complexity of the case in an accessible way.) As a historian, though, I can’t pass up the second dimension, and in the essay that follows I’d like to address it. As a Christian historian I’d also like to share a thought about the third dimension as well, but I will save that for a subsequent post.
As best as I can tell, the history of the Confederate battle flag was a non-factor in arguments before the court. This was because the question of whether the Confederate battle flag is intrinsically offensive was not at issue. Boiled down, the question the justices have to figure out is this: should official state license plates be thought of as a forum for the expression of public opinion? If the answer is “yes” the SVC wins, because the Court has long held that government cannot limit speech merely on the grounds that it is offensive.
Outside of the courtroom, however, the question of whether the Confederate battle flag is offensive is absolutely central to the controversy. In the words of Dallas columnist Michael Lindenberger, should we see the battle flag as a “symbol of racism or an emblem of Southern pride”? Not surprisingly, it depends on who you ask. In the mind of the Reverend George Clark, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Austin, Texas, the flag “represents hate,” pure and simple. To Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, “it’s a powerful symbol of the oppression of black people.” According to Texas state senator Royce West, an African-American and long-time Democratic leader from Dallas, the flag is a reminder of “a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, [and] mass murder.”
Not so, say the representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution,” proclaims the website of the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.” And slavery? Racial oppression? Not even mentioned. But why should they be? As Ben Jones, a former Congressman and national spokesman for the SVC puts it, the Confederate battle flag “represents the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are.”
Could the two sides be any more polarized? When it comes to competing interpretations of the same artifact, I’d say that the chasm between “rape and mass murder” and “liberty and freedom” is pretty hard to beat. Clearly, all nuance has gone out the window, but then complexity and soundbites rarely go together, do they?
But which side is right—or at least closer to the truth? It may surprise you to hear it, but I’m tempted to dismiss the question entirely—not because it’s hard, but because it’s inappropriate. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol. Symbols aren’t precise things that we can label as “true” or “false.” They’re unavoidably vague and squishy, and the connotations that they evoke are unavoidably subjective. This means that they can, and frequently do, mean different things to different people. Does the Confederate battle flag stand for slavery and white supremacy? Yes! . . . in the minds of some people. Does it stand for a noble defense of liberty and freedom? Absolutely! . . . in the minds of others. As a symbol, the Confederate flag is literally meaning-less—devoid of one, objective, intrinsic meaning—and the meaning we impute to it is just that: the meaning we impute to it.
But as a historian I’m not prepared to stop here, for much of the debate about what the Confederate battle flag “stands for” today is really a debate about the values and motives of those in the past who have willingly waved it, worn it, or followed it. Here we move from the realm of symbols to the world of historical figures, and there is more than enough historical evidence at our disposal to adjudicate between the contending sides.
If we focus on the uses of the Confederate battle flag in the recent past, there is really no argument. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the flag became the symbol of choice of countless white supremacist organizations, most notably the Ku Klux Klan. But note that this development unfolded generations after Lee surrendered to Grant. A good book to read on this point is The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s most Embattled Emblem, by John M. Coski.
Coski, chief historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, notes that white southerners rarely displayed the battle flag between the end of the Civil War and the late 1930s. The original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which existed briefly during the early years of Reconstruction, was not popularly associated with that emblem. After the Klan was reborn during World War I, in part because of the popularity of D. W. Griffith’s notorious movie Birth of a Nation, Klan rallies regularly featured not the Confederate battle flag but the U. S. Stars and Stripes.
The popularity of the Confederate battle flag began to pick up at the close of the Great Depression for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, although Coski speculates that the influence of Gone With the Wind might be part of the answer. Whatever the cause, when South Carolina’s Governor Strom Thurmond walked out of the 1948 Democratic national convention in protest of a possible civil rights’ plank, the segregationist “Dixiecrat” Party that he helped to found quickly embraced the Rebel banner. When the fledgling party met in convention in Birmingham later that year, state delegations entered the convention hall waving Confederate battle flags.
From that point on, whenever white southerners wanted to protest federal policies promoting integration, they unfurled the Confederate battle flag. In 1956, a year after the Supreme Court ordered southern school districts to dismantle segregation “with all deliberate speed,” the all-white Georgia legislature defiantly voted to incorporate the battle flag into the Georgia state flag. In 1962, South Carolina’s all-white legislature voted to raise the flag atop the state capitol in Columbia. A year later, Alabama governor George Wallace “toss[ed] the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,” declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and raised the Confederate battle flag over the Alabama statehouse. When African Americans like Reverend Clark, Ms. Ifill, and Senator West view the battle flag as a symbol of racial oppression, they have very good reasons to do so. How could they not?
But the question isn’t quite that simple. For their part, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans insist that it’s not their fault if white supremacist groups have hijacked a noble symbol. According to the SCV, their purpose is to honor the memory of ancestors who fought for the Confederacy a century and a half ago. The official website of the national headquarters prominently features a 2010 resolution in which the SCV “denounce[s] the use of the Confederate Battle Flag . . . by any hate group.” The resolution goes on to contend that “the misuse of the Confederate Battle Flag by any extremist group or individual espousing political extremism and/or racial superiority degrades the Confederate Battle Flag and maligns the noble purpose of our ancestors who fought against extreme odds for what they knew was just, right, and constitutional.”
Boiled down, the SCV position is this: On the one hand, the advocacy of racial superiority in the latter half of the twentieth century is reprehensible and the organization in no way condones it. On the other hand, the cause of the South a century earlier had nothing to do with racial superiority but was in actuality “just and right.” I’m sorry guys, but the latter claim’s untenable.
Was every man and boy who put on the Confederate uniform motivated primarily by the desire to defend white supremacy? Of course not. Historians who have studied the values of Confederate soldiers have learned that they entered the service for all kinds of pragmatic as well as ideological reasons: for adventure, for money, to impress women, to defend women, to get away from home, to defend their homes, to defend their “country,” to be true to their forefathers, to resist “tyranny,” and—in at least one out of five cases—because they were drafted and had no choice. But the idea that the commitment to white supremacy can be easily separated from the Confederate cause requires a willful determination to ignore a host of contemporary voices to the contrary.
The most famous was that of Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy. Speaking at a rally in Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, Stephens derided the view held by at least some of the Founding Fathers that slavery “was wrong in principle.” “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens declared. “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.”
In defining the Confederate undertaking in racial terms, Stephens was picking up a theme perfected by the Charleston Mercury, one of the most outspoken voices for southern rights in the run-up to Abraham Lincoln’s election. In an October 1860 editorial titled “The Terrors of Submission,” the Mercury had advocated secession in the event of a “Black Republican” victory on the grounds that “the ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves,” would mean the loss of “everything that makes life worth living.” At roughly the same time in Knoxville, Tennessee (a town I have studied closely—you can buy my book here), advocates of secession denounced “the inglorious platform of the black republican party, that places the African negro on an equality with you and every white man.”
After Lincoln’s election, voices from across the South interpreted the Republican victory as an assault on the South’s racial hierarchy. S. F. Hale, an Alabama politician sent to Kentucky to try to persuade that state to secede, declared that the new government in Washington would strike down “the sovereignty and equality of the States, . . . resting its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the Equality of the Races, white and black.” If the South should meekly submit, Hale prophesied, “degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life. . . . Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder?”
There is no reason to believe that these views were confined to civilians. Here a good book to read would be Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, by Colin Edward Woodward. Woodward is no carpetbagger or liberal Yankee academic. He holds the PhD from Louisiana State University, one of the premier centers for the study of southern history, is currently an archivist at the Arkansas Center for History and Culture, and got his book published by the press of the University of Virginia.
Woodward begins with a survey of how the slavery question informed Confederate soldiers’ understanding of the southern cause. He finds that the two were inseparable. Whenever Confederates reflected on what was at stake in the war, their thoughts always came back to slavery. Rebels worried about the loss of economic opportunity if slavery was prohibited from further expansion. They claimed to be anxious for the purity of white womanhood if an inferior black race was set loose by abolitionist fanaticism, and they were troubled more generally by the loss of racial control that emancipation would bring about. Above all, they feared becoming “slaves” themselves.
As the author points out, slavery was never just an economic arrangement or an institution for racial control in the Old South, although it was both those things. In the minds of white southerners, it was also a powerful metaphor for dependence and degradation, and the black slaves that surrounded them became the embodiment of what would happen to whites if the southern cause did not prevail. Woodward absolutely rejects the position held by some historians that poorer Confederates sometimes resented being enlisted in a “rich man’s war” on behalf of the master class. “The proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes,” he contends, and expressions of class resentment were rare. “The struggle was about protecting slavery,” Woodward sums up matter-of-factly, and all ranks “knew that going in.”
Writing at the end of the 1960s, the eminent American historian David Potter, a Georgian by birth, remarked that the South was a land that remembered the past “very vividly [but] somewhat inaccurately, because the present had nothing exciting to offer, and accuracy about either the past or the present was psychologically not very rewarding.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans fit that template to a tee. I can’t speak to their constitutional argument that they have a legal right to require the state of Texas to print their logo on a license plate. But I can say this about their historical argument: It’s awful.