The Permanence of the Confederate Flag

A new bill would bar the banners from some military grave sites, but the rebel symbolism isn’t going away any time soon.

A caretaker at a national cemetery in New York shows Confederate flags stored in a shed on the grounds. (Heather Ainsworth / AP)

Last year’s massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, launched a mass effort to rid the country of Confederate symbols. Local governments voted to remove rebel banners from Southern cities, including Charleston, and people pushed to remove war memorials in towns from Louisville to New Orleans. Now, if California Congressman Jared Huffman’s bill becomes law, the Confederate battle flag could soon be largely barred from some military cemeteries, too.

It would prohibit large versions of the flag—such as those flown from flagpoles and over mass graves, Politico and The Hill report—from being displayed at national cemeteries operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Smaller versions would still be allowed at individual gravesites on two days, Confederate Memorial Day and Memorial Day. And some resting places, like state-owned veterans cemeteries, are exempt. The House passed the amendment Thursday with the support of GOP House leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan, although roughly 160 Republicans and one Democrat voted against the amendment.

Huffman argued his case in a speech late Wednesday night. “Why in the year 2016 are we still condoning displays of this hateful symbol on our sacred national cemeteries? Symbols like the Confederate battle flag have meaning. They are not just neutral historical symbols of pride. They represent slavery, oppression, lynching, and hate,” the Democratic congressman said. “To continue to allow national policy condoning the display of this symbol on federal property is wrong, and it’s disrespectful to what our country stands for and what our veterans fight for.”

This wasn’t the first time Congress has recently considered the flag’s removal. Last year, a similar bill from Huffman disrupted the appropriations process when southern Republicans objected to its provisions. Some on the Hill weren’t so fond of the amendment this time around, either. In a strongly worded message to “fellow patriots and freedom loving history buffs,” the legislative director for Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland urged members to vote down the measure. “You know who else supports destroying history so that they can advance their own agenda? ISIL,” he wrote, referring to the Islamic State. “Don’t be like ISIL.” Westmoreland’s office later criticized the message as “unprofessional” and said the staffer had been disciplined.

Some who support Huffman’s bill may see it as a way to claim moral victory over those who still honor the symbol. But it will be impossible to expunge Confederate imagery in its entirety. Not only do many Americans still think it has value—as members of Congress just showed—but Confederate memorials and namesakes are scattered across the country. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center tally, these symbols show up in 1,500 spots in 31 states, including military bases and forts named for rebel fighters. Most are in Southern states, but others exist in places from New York down to Miami, Florida. Nine states still honor Confederate holidays and six state banners boast Confederate flag imagery, as my colleague David Graham reported last year. These aren’t all 100-plus-year-old relics, either. The flag saw a revival in the mid-20th century as a response to the civil-rights movement, including in Westmoreland’s home state. Georgia redesigned its state flag in 1956 to incorporate part of the Confederacy’s.

The U.S. government has also financially contributed to the flag’s permanence. Through Veterans Affairs, the feds still pay to mark Confederate graves that do not yet have headstones. Writing for The Atlantic, Steven Weiss noted in 2013 that the markers cost upwards of $100 each to produce:

Most Civil War experts don't realize the federal government has spent more than $2 million in the past decade to produce and ship headstones honoring Confederate dead, often at the request of local Confederate heritage groups in the South, and overwhelmingly in Georgia. Going back to at least 2002, the government has provided more headstones for Confederate graves than for Union soldiers' graves. In that time, the Department of Veterans Affairs has provided approximately 33,000 headstones for veterans of the Civil War. Sixty percent of those have been for Confederate soldiers.

More than 150 years after the war’s end, many people are still working hard to keep Confederate memory alive. The occasional bill from Congress can’t do much to change that, but members, it seems, will keep trying.