Two Thoughts on the Confederate Battle Flag

by Reihan Salam

Though I greatly appreciate Ian’s thoughts on the Confederate battle flag, I believe that official displays of the flag should end, for two reasons that immediately come to mind. One admittedly sentimental reason is that the nationalist in me would much prefer that we celebrate the roughly 200,000 southerners, more than 90,000 of whom were black, who fought for the Union rather than those who fought against it, a point that Josh Gelernter raised several months ago. But the other reason is that the use of Confederate symbols has gone through a number of different phases since the end of the Civil War, and the revival of these symbols that began in the late 1940s was about more than paying tribute to the Confederate war dead. Back in 2000, Georgia’s state government commissioned an inquiry into the history of Georgia’s state flag. The final product is a fascinating document, and though I’m sure that it does not offer the last word on the subject, I found it worthwhile.

The following (lengthy) passage gives you the gist of the argument: 

Since the incorporation of the battle flag into Georgia’s state flag occurred long after the Civil War ended, the central question arises as to how that adoption refers to any racist connotations that the battle flag may have acquired since then. It must be understood how the meaning of the battle flag has changed since the Civil War and explore what it meant at the time Georgia and other states adopted it or paid homage to it. From the end of the Civil War until the late 1940s, display of the battle flag was mostly limited to Confederate commemorations, Civil War re-enactments, and veterans’ parades. The flag had simply become a tribute to Confederate veterans. It was during that time period, only thirty years after the end of the war and fifty years before the modern civil rights movement, that Mississippi incorporated the battle flag into its own state flag – well before the battle flag took on a different and more politically charged meaning.

In 1948, the battle flag began to take on a different meaning when it appeared at the Dixiecrat convention in Birmingham as a symbol of southern protest and resistance to the federal government – displaying the flag then acquired a more political significance after this convention. Georgia of course, changed its flag in 1956, two years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided. In 1961, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, raised the Confederate battle flag over the capitol dome in Montgomery to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War. The next year, South Carolina raised the battle flag over its capitol. In 1963, as part of his continued opposition to integration, Governor Wallace again raised the flag over the capitol dome. Despite the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War, the likely meaning of the battle flag by that time was not the representation of the Confederacy, because the flag had already been used by Dixiecrats and had become recognized as a symbol of protest and resistance. Based on its association with the Dixiecrats, it was at least in part, if not entirely, a symbol of resistance to federally enforced integration. Undoubtedly, too, it acquired a racist aspect from its use by the Ku Klux Klan, whose violent activities increased during this period. However, it is important to remember that in spite of these other uses, there remained displays of the battle flag as homage to the Confederate dead, with no racist overtones.

It must also be remembered that despite the controversy over Georgia’s and Mississippi’s flags, the two were created under very different circumstances. One determining factor of whether a symbol is racist is if it is adopted at a time when the symbol had racist significance. Therefore, it is doubtful that the state flag of Mississippi – adopted in the nineteenth century – has the racist connotations of the 1940s and beyond. Mississippi’s flag was simply adopted too early to have the racist connections that would come later. Georgia’s 1956 flag and South Carolina’s and Alabama’s respective raising of the battle flag in 1962 and 1963, however, have a different meaning when placed in their historical context. Despite some nonracist uses, the Dixiecrat, segregationist, and Klan uses of the flag by that time had distorted the flag’s connection with the Confederate nation and its soldiers. The raising of the battle flag over the capitols is clear – intimidation of those who would enforce integration and a statement of firm resolve to resist integration. Likewise, when the battle flag was incorporated into the Georgia state flag, the state was in a desperate situation to preserve segregation. Resisting, avoiding, undermining, and circumventing integration was the 1956 General Assembly’s primary objective. The adoption of the battle flag was an integral, albeit small, part of this resistance. The 1956 state flag, as Representative Denmark Groover so clearly stated, “…will serve notice that we intend to uphold what we stood for, will stand for, and will fight for.” 

Granted, it could be that the Confederate battle flag has come to mean something entirely different in 2015 than it did in the mid-1950s, when it was closely tied to resistance to federal desegregation efforts. But is its value such that we ought to continue giving it quasi-official status, even when doing so alienates the descendants of enslaved southerners, who have just as much claim to deciding which symbols ought to represent southern heritage as the descendants of Confederate veterans? I don’t believe so. 

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