Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Rebel Flag: Offputting Symbol or Point of Pride?

A young man sports
a Confederate Flag
cape at a Peterboro, NY
CC / DSC01297 by
In 2004, Gettysburg College hosted an art exhibit by John Sims, a Florida based artist and ethnomathematician. The exhibit focused on varied recolored versions of the Confederate Flag. The press outrage was quick and damning. I should know, I was quoted in it (in the Civil War News).

Back in 2004, I called the exhibit, "sickening," and condemned the college for, "trying to distance itself from the town by rejecting the Civil War past in which it is steeped." I was wrong. I figured that out no sooner than passing through the doors of the art gallery and viewing the exhibit. Sims' presentation was provocative and jarring, but had some of the most profound things to say about the Confederate Flag that I think can be said. It's been six long years, my views have shifted and solidified, and I now look back on those words I spoke against Sims' project in shame.

What does this have to do with the proverbial prices of tea in China? It all swam back into my mind this past year, during a class session at Shippensburg University. While working on my Masters in Applied History, I had the privilege of taking classes not only with young folks like myself, but teachers returning to school for another degree. One teacher, when we were talking in class about tourism in Gettysburg, brought up the fact she can't bring her class to the town. She has the budget to pay for the buses and admission fee for the museum. She can get the chaperons. Her chief problem is that half her class is black.

I was floored. I constantly wish that Gettysburg had more African-American visitors. The battle that took place there firmly secured freedom for 4 million and acted as the basis upon which the modern Civil Rights movement stood. For a teacher to say she wouldn't bring her class because some of her students were black flabbergasted me.

I probed and challenged. Her answer was sound and succinct. To get her students into the visitor center or around town, she would need to take the bus down Steinweir Avenue. And she feared having to explain to her black students why a Confederate Flag was still allowed to fly high on the flagpole above the wax museum and from nearly every souvenir shop in town.

Protesters against school integration wield a Confederate Flag (1959) / PD / LC-U9- 2919-25

I completely understand the quandary. The feeling she has scouting out the town and deciding if a trip is the right thing for her students is the same I have in my town every day.  I live in Gettysburg, under the watchful gaze of the Confederate Flag at almost every turn.  And sometimes I, a short white guy from New York, feel exceedingly uncomfortable with that flag flapping over my shoulder.  What does that flag mean?  Proponents of the Confederate Flag's display have shouted about pride and heritage and history.  That flag is a representation of their grandpappy's struggle for his "rats".

That answer is bunk, pure and simple.  The sheer fact is that for every person who says that their grandpappy fought under that stainless banner, I could find someone whose grandpappy fought to destroy that flag and the treason for which it stood.  My own great-great granduncle fought in the United States Regulars to tear that flag down from the 11 poles which ran it up in early 1861.  He died at Gettysburg firing his gun against troops carrying that flag, trying to keep them (through force of arms) from destroying the nation his grandfather had helped win in the American Revolution.

Another type of flag flies from the NAACP's
New York Offices in 1938 / CC / LC-USZC4-4734
The popularly understood Confederate Flag, that elongated version of the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, has been a potent symbol in America since the day that my uncle died.  The symbol cropped up again and again, each time employed for hateful and spiteful speech.  By a century following his death, that flag was a banner stained not simply with the blood of Confederate soldiers, but intermingled with the blood of those who died at the hands of those bearing that flag.  The countless victims of Jim Crow laws, Leo Frank, Medgar Evers and eventually Dr. King all stained that banner with blood and altered its meanings.

So, what does it mean to fly a Confederate flag today?  Why did a number of southern states, rife with racial strife and challenges to institutional segregation, decide to re-hoist the Confederate Flag from their state capitols in the 1960s?  Was there any question in the minds of those legislatures what that flag really meant?  Could a dogged defense of the Confederate Flag's display dissuade visitors from coming to places like Gettysburg?  Put yourself in an African-American visitor's shoes.  Would you visit a place festooned with flags screaming hatred at you?


  1. Interesting post John - you've really made me ponder on this. I was wondering what, if any, thoughts you had on the other Confederate flags (First, Second, and Third National flags, the Bonnie Blue)? Portions of the Second and Third National Flags have as part of them the symbol that eventually became the Battle flag - do you think that provokes the same or a similar response as the elongated "Confederate Flag?"

  2. Vanessa, any iteration of the Confederate flag would be problematic for many people today. But that said, the Confederate Battle Flag is a particular problem, not so much because of the way it was used in the 1860s, but because of its use in the 1960s, right down through today. It's not long-settled history; it's within living memory for millions of Americans.

    "Heritage" organizations -- notably the SCV, but they're not alone in this -- always argue that for them, the CBF doesn't have any connection to the Klan or other white supremacist groups (violent or otherwise) that display it. In fact, it's even a mantra with them, "heritage, not hate." But Southern heritage groups cannot define what the CBF "means," any more than the Klan does. And it's unconscionably arrogant for them to argue -- as some do -- that those people who find the CBF objectionable do so only out of their own ignorance. Trust me, it's not the people who object to the CBF who are lacking in historical perspective and understanding.

  3. I'd also add, if you want to see how hopelessly tangled the CBF remains with both Confederate "heritage" and hate groups like the Klan, look at this photo essay about a Klan march in Pulaski, Tennessee, honoring the birthday of Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is also today one of the most revered Confederate leaders among the "heritage" folks. (He gets his own page of t-shirt designs at Dixie Outfitters, along with Lee and Stonewall Jackson.) There are dozens of CBFs on displpay here -- actual flags, patches, rings, belt buckles, and on and on -- so in this context, which of these are being displayed as Klan symbols, and which are simply honoring a Confederate hero? I'm sure the Klansmen would say they're doing both. It's not an easy distinction, is it?

  4. One thing you don't cover in your post: What do you propose we do about the presence of the flag? Does it take education to convince people of why flying it is wrong? Or does it take teachers like the one you bring up working past their fear to talk about it? I can say if I was leading a class to Gettysburg and these questions came up for black students, I'd use it as a discussion/teaching moment to arouse their passion and let them explore their feelings.

    Can we ever eradicate the Confederate flag completely? Or do we have to resign ourselves to its presence always? Why do we put up with it? We can talk about how wrong it is, but what can we actually do about it?

  5. Check out this book for what I think is the best researched and most comprehensive and balanced view on the history of the use(s) of the Confederate battle flag (and other CSA flags):

    It's written by John Coski, a well respected historian who earned his PhD from William & Mary and who is the Library Director at the Museum of the Confederacy.

  6. Vanessa - Good, thought provoking point. I agree with Tigone that, although any Confederate flag is troubling, that elongated battle flag is the culprit. Any Confederate banner stood politically for slavery and oppression to some extent or another, but the wholehearted seizure of the 3' x 5' flag by racists in the 20th century shifted its meaning forever.

    Tigone - Thanks for the great comments. You've expanded the conversation and are welcome back anytime. That Time-Life gallery has always gotten to me. It's downright frightening to envision that much hate in someone's heart.

    Damsel - I think it's a First amendment issue. It has to be a personal choice on the part of those flying the flag. So it comes down to education and economic pressures. People need to see the world from another's shoes to gain some perspective. Then they need to see the pragmatic viewpoint of more inviting atmosphere = more black visitors to Gettysburg/other sites = more customers in stores and shops in town.

    Raffi - Coski's one of those books I've looked at before in the store, but hadn't picked up. On your recommendation, it's in the queue

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