DOWN AT LAST: THOUGHTS ON THE CONFEDERATE BATTLE FLAG—pt. THREE

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.

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

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.”

SC Representative Jenny Horne: “What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now."

SC Representative Jenny Horne: “What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now.”

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.

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention.

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention.

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.

12 responses to “DOWN AT LAST: THOUGHTS ON THE CONFEDERATE BATTLE FLAG—pt. THREE

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  6. Jim Cunningham

    I’ve been a resident of South Carolina for over thirty-five years, but I wasn’t born here, and I don’t know of any ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, so I don’t have the emotional attachment to the flag that some do and I’m in agreement with your position on it.
    But I do have one minor quibble with your post. The photo of the flag on the SC State House grounds is misleading. It makes the flagpole and flag look much bigger in proportion to the State House than it really was. In your defense, when I searched the Internet, I had a hard time finding a photo that showed a more truly representative perspective. But there is one at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Carolina_State_House#/media/File:South_Carolina_State_House.JPG.
    Not a big deal, and I apologize for the small criticism, because I do enjoy your blog.

    • Thanks, Jim. I wasn’t trying to exaggerate the size of the flag relative to the capitol building–just took one of the first photos I could find online. This one is better. TM

  7. Tom McClelland

    Dr. McKenzie, I really appreciate your thoughts & comments regarding symbols, and symbolism, particularly with regard to this issue. I’ve spent considerable hours over the past weeks thinking about this – because, like you, I am also a southerner stranded in IL :)… Hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to share the post I place on FB two days ago:

    Symbols

    Over the past weeks there has been a great, often contentious, debate of the meaning and intent of symbols. I am thinking, in particular, of the heated debate, in the news, on social media, over the dinner table, regarding the Confederate Battle Flag. As most who will read this are aware – I am a southerner. Though not born in the south – I spent most of my youth and well into my late 30s living south of the proverbial Mason-Dixon line. Both my parents are southerners – Dad was from FL and Mom still lives in AL. I was raised in Mobile, AL and grew up on the legend and lore of the Battle of Mobile Bay, spending hours climbing through the remains of the two great Confederate forts that guarded the entrance to the Bay.

    Since the horrific event in Charleston, SC where 9 of my Christian brothers & sisters were murdered for no other apparent reason than the color of their skin, I have read & watched the debate over the Confederate flag with interest, often times with disgust, and, at the end of the day – I usually shake my head in amazement. Why could this one symbol, a flag that, according to its history, was not even the official flag of the Confederacy until less than 6 months before Appomattox, become such a focal point of conflict?

    Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a symbol as “an action, object, event, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality; something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially : a visible sign of something invisible.”

    I’ve spent some considerable time trying to come to grips with my own thoughts, my journey regarding this symbol that has cause such discord.

    As a child growing up in the 60’s, my two favorite games to play with my neighborhood friends (NOT video games – but real life, outdoor, running wild as kids type games) were Cowboys & Indians or “war”. I realize that there are many reading this who will immediate be offended by these games and immediately assume or declare that my childhood was tainted (at best) and may even declare that I’m mentally damaged. Well, you can have that opinion – and keep it to yourself – I tend to think that my childhood was pretty doggone normal and FUN!.

    The characters that I always wanted to portray in our games were the bravehearted warriors. It didn’t matter to me whether I was the cowboy, the indian or some other warrior – what always attracted me was a certain type of character – the one who wore buckskins, was a bit of a loner, and always fought with integrity and great bravery. Whenever the game of the day was “war” – we usually would choose from one of the following wars: The Civil War, WW2 or some grand knights & dragons conflict. Confederate soldiers were always the choice for all us kids because we liked gray better than blue for uniform colors, we were drawn to the conflict to defend our homes and, finally – if you were on the Gray side, you had that hellacious REBEL YELL. I can tell you in all honesty, the thought of slavery never entered our 6, 7, 8 or 9 year old minds. For us, the Confederate flag represented some mystical concept of bravery and a cool war cry.
    In the years since my “war” days – the darker side of that conflict (and all war) and the symbols from all our wars has taken new meaning for me. And I’ve also come to realize that any symbol from any conflict, belief or idea, will always carry many meanings.

    The Confederate flag is no different. It does represent heritage. It does represent some long lost (dare I say, never existed) concept of chivalry and honor. It does represent darkness – the great American sin of slavery. I think, and this is my own idea here, it may still represent for many, some form of rebellion against a perceived (or real?) concept of intrusion by an oppressive federal government and the trampling of states rights. Yes, the South lost the war and was re-integrated into the Union. Thankfully, slavery was eliminated as an economic system of oppression and dehumanization. Yet, sadly, even some 150 years later, its impact on American culture and society continues.

    And now, once again, the Confederate flag stands as a symbol. For many, it still represents the dehumanizing system of slavery that their ancestors were forced to endure. I get it. When I talk with my African-American friends, I hear the pain and the anguish in their voices. The past is still painfully present. When I talk to my white friends who, like me, proudly claim our heritage as southerners – we also must bear the sins of our ancestors. We love the South. I sometimes think we not only love the region – but we love the romance of our heritage. But, we must also come to grips with the reality that that romance has a very dark side – the enslavement of our Black friends. For all of us – that flag carries meaning. And we must all, I think, step back from the name-calling, the accusations of racism and the bitterness this symbol generates – and act like adults.

    It is a symbol that divides – just as it did 150 years ago.

    Once I came to this point in my considerations, I finally realized that, no matter what this flag may have represented to me as a child, now it is time to put away childhood things and think and act as an adult. This means – to me – that I hear and acknowledge the pain and bitterness this symbol represents to my Black friends and to my Northern white friends. They can never understand what this symbol once represented to me because they were not raised as a white boy in the south. I can’t fully grasp the depth of the pain it represents to my Black friends because I did not experience life in the south as they did.

    This one thing I believe – any symbol that generates such anger and division should be relegated to historical artifact. Yes, and this is very hard for me, it is time to place this flag in museums. As Webster says, again, a symbol represents an idea or a certain quality. The Confederate flag carries many different meanings – as the entire discussion in the news and on social media clearly shows. But, as I stated earlier, the one idea that it STILL represents today is division.

    Do we want to live as a house divided?

    • Tom: Thanks for sharing these really thoughtful reflections. TM

    • Pamela Parizo

      I really appreciate your comments. As a Westerner, I can’t relate to the heritage part of the issue, though I think Americans in some sense have had that soft spot for GWTW and the rebel flag that symbolized the Old South. I do think it symbolizes not only the white supremacy sector, but that rebellion against Washington you mentioned. Many people I’ve talked to on social media see it as a positive, a rejection of Federal overreach, and say perhaps secession could be a good thing. It’s somewhat unusual that by some the flag is being viewed as a Conservative, Republican symbol. Quite the opposite of times past.

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  9. Jack Be Nimble

    It always amazes me what light conscientious historical research casts on heated contemporary debate. If the Confederate battle flag is symbolic of anything, it is a symbol of white supremacy, but it also strikes me as a symbol of disunion. It is tragic that it takes the loss of nine innocent lives to stir us to recognize our delusion. Once again forward progress in the battle against racism comes as a result of tragic loss of life. Is there no other way?

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