I plan to write again soon at much greater length about the rapidly unfolding events in the South Carolina legislature, but I thought I would share a few quick reactions to the just completed debate there over the proposal to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol. As you’re surely aware by now, on Monday the South Carolina Senate voted 37-3 to lower the flag for good. Then in the wee hours this morning the state House of Representatives followed suit after an intense and contentious thirteen-hour debate. By a margin of 94-20 they concurred with the Senate and sent the measure to Governor Nikki Haley for her signature. She is expected to sign the bill at any moment, which means that the flag will be gone by tomorrow, an outcome that no one could have anticipated a scant three weeks ago.
I’ve only skimmed the extensive news coverage of the debates in Columbia, but three assertions caught my attention because of the way that they speak to the role of historical memory in the legislature’s emotional deliberations. Two of them I’ll pair together. They are almost perfectly symmetrical and almost equally illogical, although one of them will be mostly ridiculed and the other widely applauded.
During the debate in the Senate, Senate majority leader Harvey Peeler Jr. opposed the removal of the flag on the grounds that “moving the flag won’t change history.” It would be tantamount to “removing a tattoo from the corpse of a loved one and thinking that would change the loved one’s obituary.” Two days later, representative Jenny Horne, who passionately supported the flag’s removal, decried all discussion of the past. After the House finally approved the measure, Horne, who emerged as one of the heroes of the debate, told a Washington Post reporter she was tired of talking about the purported values of those who carried the flag into battle. “What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now,” she told the Post. “And in 2015, that flag was used as a symbol of hatred.”
In fairness to both, we need to acknowledge that Peeler and Horne were both engaged in an unscripted, emotional debate, but we still need to think deeply about their claims. Neither is supportable. The debate over what the Confederate battle flag symbolizes has always been a dispute about historical memory—popular memory of the past from the vantage point of the present. Neither Peeler nor Horne get this. Peeler argued as if the Confederate battle flag testifies only to the past, blind to its power as a living symbol that makes a statement—an inexact and debatable statement, to be sure—to all who view it.
Horne, for her part, takes Peeler’s obtuseness and turns it upside down. The debate over the Confederate battle flag can be settled without any reference to the past whatsoever, she implied to the Post reporter. Dylann Roof has settled the question quite nicely, thank you very much. What other evidence is needed? But the flag is a symbol, and symbols are inescapably imprecise. They’re squishy things that often mean different things to different people. We can’t classify symbols as “true” or “false,” as if they were mathematical postulates. What we can do—and are obliged to do in instances such as this one—is to ask whether a particular symbol is appropriate, whether it reasonably can be made to stand for the values that are imputed to it. Was Dylann Roof simply a deranged mad man, or were there rational grounds why someone seeking to incite race war might want to be photographed with that flag? If the battle flag is a “symbol of hate,” as Horne stressed repeatedly, it didn’t become one three weeks ago.
The third claim that caught my eye was attributed to several opponents of the flag’s removal who insisted that the battle flag was in reality a noble symbol that has been “hijacked” by racists. Unlike the previous two claims, this is one that takes the past seriously. What is more, it shows an admirable sensitivity to how symbols can evolve in their predominant meaning over time. Unfortunately, the claim just isn’t true. I’ve already made the case that the battle flag is appropriately viewed as a racist symbol because of its connection with the Confederate defense of slavery and white supremacy during the Civil War. But even if we concede for the moment that the flag only became a symbol of racism after it was “hijacked” by bigots sometime after the war, who did the hijacking? Was it only extremists like Ku Klux Klansmen? Deranged killers like Dylann Roof? Or should the list include more mainstream figures?
In his book The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s most Embattled Emblem, historian John M. Coski notes that white southerners rarely displayed the 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 Stars and Stripes.
Although the popularity of the Confederate battle flag began to pick up at the close of the Great Depression, another decade passed before it would became a prominent symbol of white supremacy. And in what context did it do so? If there was a single moment that embodied the flag’s renaissance as an important cultural symbol, it came in 1948 and it centered around none other than the popular governor of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond. After walking out of the Democratic national convention that year in protest of a possible civil rights’ plank, the segregationist “Dixiecrat” Party that the South Carolina governor 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. White South Carolinians voted overwhelmingly for Thurmond in that fall’s election, giving him 72 percent of the ballots cast. Black South Carolinians didn’t vote–not because they were indifferent, but because they weren’t allowed to.
Blaming unnamed fringe groups for “hijacking” an honorable symbol just won’t wash.
Back with more soon.