Friday, April 1, 2016

Of Course People Are Offended By the Confederate Flag: It Was Literally the Symbol of Segregation

Recent events at St. Mary's College have garnered some unfortunate news coverageLast week, as part of an Easter tradition, students hid decorated beer cans all around campus. Unfortunately, some of the beer cans were adorned with Confederate flags and with racist, sexist, and homophobic statements. There can be no defense of the statements that were written on the cans, but many folks have a hard time understanding the offense that people take with the Confederate flag. This is understandable - because most people don't know the actual history of the flag or how it came to be part of American culture. Once that history is made clear, people tend to understand why displaying the flag is not something that anyone should ever do proudly. 

Many will tell you that the "confederate flag" is simply a symbol of Southern Pride, or that it represents the ideals of limited governments and "state's rights." But such claims are not supported by the flag's actual history. In reality, the confederate battle flag pretty much disappeared from view and memory after the war. The flag truly became a symbol of the south during the late 1940s and the 1950s - and racial prejudice played the key role in its reemergence. In 1948, Southern Democrats split from the Democratic party over the issue of civil rights. Strom Thurmond ran under the banner of the States Rights Democratic Party, or the Dixiecrats. They adopted the battle flag as their symbol and their party platform declared "We stand for the segregation of the races..." "States rights" and segregation were understood to be synonymous. Thurmond won in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In fact, he topped 70% in AL, MS, and SC.

In 1956, Georgia incorporated the confederate flag into its state flag. Why did GA make the change? To protest the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling which outlawed school segregation. Then, in 1962, George Wallace, governor of Alabama and proud segregationist, raised the battle flag over the State house. Why? To link the south's battle against integration to the "glorious Civil War." Wallace ran for president as a third party candidate in 1968 and segregation was a central theme of his campaign. He carried 5 southern states and came in a close 2nd in 4 more. So the reemergence of the confederate battle flag was driven by opposition to integration and civil rights. The flag was then and is now a symbol of segregation and oppression.

Why do so few people know the real history of the flag? Because of what they learned in school.  Text books up through the 1960s and into the 1970s provided a very distorted picture of the Civil War and the Jim Crow south. Text book companies knew they could not sell books in Southern markets if they told the whole truth. And they were not going to produce Northern versions and Southern versions of their books. So generations grew up thinking that the Civil War was over "states right" and that slavery was a marginal issue. They also learned that Southern politicians opposed integration simply because they believed in a limited federal government. That the Dixiecrats were simply defending states' rights. Now, all of those folks are hearing things that don't fit with what they learned and many are claiming that people are just trying to rewrite history. In reality, people are actually trying to right history.

Now, I don't think that every person who displays the flag is a racist who endorses the flag's history. Rather I think they are unaware of its true history and have accepted the popular myth that the flag simply symbolizes southern culture or heritage. It may be that many of the folks who display the Confederate flag today do so with no racial motivation. They may believe that it represents limited government or state's rights. But their intentions and motivations cannot undo the flag's true history and purpose. Nothing can separate the symbol from its past. Those who proclaim that the flag is about "heritage and not hate" should know that the history of the flag makes clear that it represents heritage AND hate.