America's Simple-Minded Obsession With the Confederate Flag

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Journalists love to recycle old clichés about the rebel banner. But its days as an official symbol of Southern pride are rapidly coming to an end.

confed-flag-wide.jpgA pickup truck decked out with Confederate and U.S. flags drives south of Miami. (Reuters)

Next month's Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation's first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region's progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.

Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that "remnants of the Old South linger in our region -- and none as divisive as the Confederate flag." Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents "heritage, not hate." (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland's story puts it, "I've lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.")

This affirmation of benign Southern pride is typically followed by a quote from a local historian who reminds us of the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the Confederate cause. The author's inevitable plea "that it is time we put it away" leaves the reader with the impression that an inordinate number of white southerners remain preoccupied with the flag. This overly simplistic narrative masks a more complex history, as well as evidence suggesting that attitudes about the Confederate flag are, in fact, continually evolving in the South.

Not all Confederate soldiers fought under the blue St. Andrew's cross (more accurately, the saltire). And apart from its use during veterans events, the flag's visibility was minimal during the decades following the war. At the beginning of the 20th century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to protect the flag's connection to the men in the ranks by maintaining a strict code governing its usage in public. Misuse and alignment with questionable causes, they believed, would not only soil the meaning of the flag, but the memory of the Confederacy and the righteousness of its cause as well.

By the 1940s, however, the flag could be seen at University of Mississippi football games and other popular events, ushering in what historian John Coski has called a "flag fad." That fad eventually extended to the far reaches of the nation, and the flag can now be seen on every kind of trinket and tchotchke imaginable.

However, the flag's most lasting legacy -- and the source of much of the controversy today -- can be traced to its use as a symbol of "Massive Resistance" by the Dixiecrats beginning in 1948 and continuing through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. During that period, the flag became the standard for those committed to defending classrooms, bus depots, and other public spaces (now battlefields themselves) from black encroachment.

In fact, the flag's use throughout the 20th century covered a time span significantly longer than its presence on Civil War battlefields. Its placement atop southern statehouses like South Carolina ultimately reinforced the flag's connection to segregation and racism.

Confederate flags no longer enjoy those privileged perches. In fact, over the past few years, white and black southerners have become less tolerant of the public display of the flag, which has relegated its supporters to the sidelines and a much more defensive posture. Last year, the city of Lexington, Virginia, banned the flying of the flag from public fixtures. This past spring, the Museum of the Confederacy opened a new branch at Appomattox that did not include the display of the flag outside its doors. Finally, late last year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond removed Confederate flags flying on the grounds of the Confederate Memorial Chapel, which the museum oversees.

The museum's decision led to the creation of a grassroots group called the Virginia Flaggers, but despite daily protests in front of the museum and a social media presence, its efforts have met with no success. The Sons of Confederate Veterans utilized their mailing lists and other resources in response to all three events, but they also have little to show for their efforts. These shifting fault lines suggest that while white and black southerners may tolerate the right of the individual to display the flag on private property, its display on public grounds and at other institutions will be met with suspicion and openly challenged.

None of this easily fits into the popular narrative of a region mired in the past that uses a 19th century flag to pit the races against one another. I suspect there will be few, if any, Confederate flags to count during the coverage of next month's DNC, and that should tell us a great deal about how far we've come as a nation.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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