No matter where you grew up in the United States, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the Confederate flag. Perhaps on a bumper sticker or license plate, or hanging outside a home or government building. You may have seen it at school, like 15-year-old Aleah Crawford, when in 2019, she led a protest to ban the rebel flag as part of the dress code. If you haven’t seen it, and don’t know much about it, now is the time to be informed. That’s because this flag has a particularly controversial place in US history.
“People find the flag offensive because they understand the message it is meant to convey,” says Dr. William Horne, postdoctoral fellow at Villanova University and co-founder & editor of The Activist History Review. “White Americans deploy the flag to communicate specific ideas about white supremacy and racial hierarchy that formed the basis of the Confederacy.”
In this article:
- What does the Confederate flag look like?
- What is the history of the Confederate flag?
- How was the Confederate flag used post-Civil War?
- How is the Confederate flag used today?
- What heritage does the Confederate flag honor?
What does the Confederate flag look like?
The version of the Confederate flag you may have seen is actually the third version that was made. Today’s Confederate flag has a red background with blue bars in the shape of an X that displays 13 white stars. These white stars represent the 13 states of the Confederacy — the group of 13 southern states that fought against the United States during the Civil War.
But here’s where the controversy starts: the original version of the Confederate flag was said to be too similar to the U.S. flag, so it was redesigned. In that redesign, a white background was used, which was said to represent “the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race,” according to Savannah Morning News editor William Tappan Thompson. That’s why many consider the Confederate flag to be offensive and racist, especially since it’s more recently been adopted as a symbol for hate groups.
What is the history of the Confederate flag?
During the Civil War, the Confederate flag was the battle flag flown by several Confederate armies. One of those armies was led by General Robert E. Lee — an often romanticized figure in U.S. history. Lee led an army whose soldiers kidnapped free Black farmers and sold them into slavery, encouraged the beating of slaves who tried to escape, and fought to protect the institution of slavery.
With his surrender at Appomattox Court House, the Civil War came to an end. At that time, Lee distanced himself from the rebel flag, saying, “I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
Yet after his death, the Confederate flag became widely used by various groups and organizations that opposed civil rights.
How was the Confederate flag used post-Civil War?
The Dixiecrat political party, founded in 1948 and composed of White Southern Democrats who advocated for racial segregation, used the Confederate flag as their symbol to represent resistance to the federal government — meaning resistance to civil rights being granted to Black people. It has also been used throughout the decades by white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
In 1956, two years after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education had declared school segregation to be illegal, the state of Georgia incorporated the battle flag into its official state flag as a symbol of resistance to integration. In 1960, when six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first Black child to attend an all-white school in the South, she was met by crowds of white people who threw stones at her, called her the N-word, and waved the Confederate flag.
“White Southerners did not so much reinterpret the meaning of the flag as much as they rediscovered a meaning that had always been present going back to the war itself,” wrote Civil War historian Kevin Levin in a 2016 article about the flag for The Daily Beast.
How is the Confederate Flag used today?
Today, the Confederate flag’s history centers less around its early beginnings and more on its use as a rebel flag. It’s widely used to represent opposition to equity among all races and creeds. That’s why many people opposed the fact that the Confederate flag was flown above the statehouse in South Carolina for many years. Dylann Roof — the 21-year-old who shot and killed nine Black people in a Charleston church in June 2015 and had expressed his desire to start a “race war” — was photographed stomping and burning the American flag and waving the Confederate flag.
Roof’s brutal act renewed debate about the flag’s meaning and use in public spaces. In response to the shooting, activist Bree Newsome ripped down the flag at South Carolina’s statehouse before it was permanently taken down weeks after the shootings.
The following year, in May 2016, the U.S. House banned Confederate flags from being flown at cemeteries run by the Veterans Administration. In addition, major retailers, including Wal-Mart, eBay, and Sears stopped selling it, and various flag manufacturers have also ceased production of it.
Despite these changes, there are still Confederate flag defenders who insist that the answer to the question, “Is the Confederate flag racist?” is no. In December 2019, Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina Governor and United Nations ambassador (who actually ordered the flag removed from the Charleston statehouse), was criticized after saying Roof “hijacked” the Confederate flag, and that to the people of South Carolina, the flag represented “service and sacrifice and heritage.”
What heritage does the Confederate flag honor?
White Southerners who support the use of the flag say it’s representative of their Southern heritage. But for many African Americans, the rebel flag is a symbol of their Southern heritage as well: one of terror, torture, and oppression. They interpret the flag the same way Roof did, and presumably the same way as those who waved the flag during the Civil War, during the Civil Rights Movement that followed, and at present-day events like Charlottesville and MAGA rallies. In honoring their ancestors with that flag, Black civil rights leaders say White Americans are honoring the pain and suffering that Black Americans’ ancestors endured and continue to endure more than 150 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Originally published on 2021-05-28
Author: Jameelah Nasheed
Origins of images: Facebook, Twitter, Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Flickr, Google, Imageinjection, Public Domain & Pinterest.
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