America’s Fraught Relationship with Confederate Symbols

They are another example of how history is never neat, tidy, or convenient

Steve Jones
Jun 13, 2020 · 7 min read
A mess of Confederate flags. (Author’s Photo)

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, Americans have had to wrestle with some harsh questions. How do we deal with systemic racism? How do we unwittingly perpetuate racism? How do we reform police departments? How do we deal with attitudes of white supremacy?

And what do we do with persistent symbols from the American Civil War, specifically Confederate statues and flags?

State and local governments, plus individuals and organizations, are starting to sort out the last question. Their answers may not be neat and tidy, but they are answers nonetheless.

The three flags below are the various national flags the Confederacy had in its four short years. They were problematic. The middle one looked like a flag of surrender, which is why it got a red bar attached to it later.

CSA national flags. (Infographic: Bartonline)

But the first one, the “Stars and Bars,” could easily be confused on a smokey battlefield for the U.S. flag. So Confederate armies ran out the now-famous battle flag. Below are two versions.

Two versions of Confederate battle flag. (Infographic, Bartonline)

It was so popular and identifiable that, obviously, the Confederacy integrated it into its second and third national flags.

It’s the most recognizable of all the Confederate flags. The Ku Klux Klan co-opted it during Reconstruction. It’s the one you see on pickup rear-window decals, on bandanas, biker vests, seat covers — you name it.

I’ve often thought people fly this thing because they think it symbolizes being a “rebel.” You know, doing your own thing. “Nobody can tell me what to do.”

Maybe. But depending on what compartmentalized bit of history you want to examine, the battle flag stands for

  • a.) support for a failed, organized attempt to break the United States.
  • b.) support for a late-19th Century Southern cultural delusion called the “Lost Cause.” The Lost Cause sought to justify the Civil War, provide cover for the Jim Crow era, and replace slavery with white supremacy.
  • c.) support for racist organizations and institutions.
  • d.) all of the above.

The 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, where a protestor ran over and killed counter-protestor Heather Heyer, calls erupted to ban the flag. George Floyd’s death renewed those demands.

If you haven’t heard, NASCAR has now banned the flag at all of its events. NASCAR! That’s stock car racing, you know. Born in the South. If NASCAR has banned it, the flag is truly dying. The U.S. Marine Corps has banned soldiers from using it, and the U.S. Navy is about to do the same.

Yes, CSA battle flags have certainly appeared at Trump rallies. Perhaps the Trump campaign can’t officially endorse them, but Trump hasn’t discouraged their use, either. His rhetoric gives fertile soil for the emergence of flags like the one below.

CSA battle flag at a 2016 Trump rally. Someone quickly took it down, but still it existed. (Original photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Quick answer — no.

They were too associated with hate, pain, tyranny, fascism, the Holocaust. Why would anyone want them around? Letting them remain risked Neo-Nazi groups organizing around them.

With Confederate symbols also connoting hatred, slavery, segregation, treason, and loss, why keep them around?

Abraham Lincoln wanted a moderate Reconstruction for the defeated South. “Let ’em up easy,” he said. He hoped that would help ease the fractious South’s return to the Union.

As part of that moderate plan, the North never banned the flag during Reconstruction. That move was perhaps well intentioned, but it allowed the battle flag to proliferate as a symbol. Many entities appropriated them. Some of that was benign branding for southern rock bands or whiskey. Others were more ominous, such as its use in the photo below.

The proximity of Nazi and Rebel flags at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 gives some idea of the marchers’ mindsets. (Wikimedia Commons)

People often try to tell me that the Civil War was not about slavery. Rather it was about states’ rights.

Sorry, no.

The extent that southern states wanted states’ rights was only to the extent that they wanted the right to have slaves.

That’s it.

The Confederacy was not even a “confederacy.” The United States had tried to have a confederacy — a very limited central government with power vested in the hands of loosely joined states — between 1783 and 1787. It was called the Articles of Confederation, and it failed.

No leadership, no revenues, no defense. Who would want it?

The Confederacy certainly did not. It copied the U.S. federal constitution and government structure almost exactly.

Except it provided for perpetual slavery.

The Confederacy, and thus its symbols, supported slavery and still support racism and white supremacy.

NASCAR can ban the battle flag. It’s a private organization, it can do what it wants. But barring some sweeping legislative action, the Confederate battle flag will probably always be around.

But when you see one, you should at least know what you’re really looking at — the banner of slavery, white supremacy, and racism.

Just as Confederate flags are symbols of slavery and racism, so are statues of Confederate leaders. They’re memorials to traitors.

Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, George Pickett, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood and many other Confederate generals were educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. They took oaths to defend the United States and its Constitution.

But when the Civil War began, they defined their allegiance very narrowly. Lee said, “I cannot take up arms against my country.” He meant Virginia.

They took the investment the U.S. had made in them, then used it against the United States.

All because they wanted to defend the right to own slaves.

They are the men those statues memorialize.

They are about the “Lost Cause,” Jim Crow, racism, and white supremacy.

Just Google “Confederate Statues,” or check out the Southern Poverty Law Center site. Notice when most of the statues were erected.

You’ll find that many of them show up long after the Civil War. The Lee statue in Richmond, now in the cross-hairs of removal, was erected in 1890 — during the Lost Cause and Jim Crow eras.

Statues that showed up in the 1910s and 1920s were part of a wave of xenophobia and racism that accompanied European upheaval. WWI caused a rush of immigration, especially from eastern Europe. White Americans couldn’t stand that. Plus, blacks who fought for the U.S. in WWI experienced civil treatment in France, and they wanted the same when they returned home.

Their return ushered in an early civil rights movement and a racist backlash. The KKK experienced a resurgence and agitated against both blacks and immigrants.

Statues that were erected in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were reactions to the larger post-WWII Civil Rights movement.

Statues that showed up in the late 2000s and 2010s, and there are a few, were a reaction to the presidency of Barack Obama.

How can any black person — or anyone who has experienced American racism — walk by these statues and not feel uneasy?

I used to think that statues needed to be left in place and fitted with interpretive plaques that explain when the statue was erected and why.

I’ve changed my mind. Confederate statues are divisive, demoralizing, and, like Confederate battle flags, connote unacceptable ideals. Small interpretive plaques do little to lessen the jarring impression of a large, imposing statue.

Plus the interpretive plaque may never materialize. The statue below, in front of the Denton County courthouse in Denton, Texas, was supposed to have an interpretive plaque attached two years ago. That never happened. Now the statue is set to come down.

Author’s photo.

People are taking their own initiative with statues. They are spray painting, smashing, cutting, beheading, and toppling them. Some of the statues get left where they fall; some get dumped into waterways.

Why not systematically take them down and store them until society figures out how to effectively deal with them?

For right now, get them out of sight. They are like salt in a wound that’s been open for 160 years.

Many U.S. military installations in the South are named after some of the generals I’ve already mentioned. Trump has said he opposes renaming them because those names are part of history.

Public Domain

But it’s not the history we need to celebrate. Remember, those men fought for slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Why name a U.S. military installation for a traitor who fought against the United States?

Renaming the installations is a good idea whose time has come.

The fact that we even have to think about such things is because history is never finished. It’s not tidy. It’s not clean. It’s not packaged up and neatly compartmentalized.

Especially when you’re talking about the causes and results of civil war. Ultimately, winners and losers have to live together, and they have to work out their problems.

The cause of the Civil War was slavery. When the South lost, it replaced slavery with white supremacy and racism.

Most Americans are ready to end that now, and as the nation tries to grapple with systemic racism, it does not need the symbols of the old Confederacy impeding its progress.

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Steve Jones

Written by

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

Steve Jones

Written by

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

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