On June 17, 2015 9 men and women were gunned down inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC by a man who saw the confederate flag as a justification for his sick, racist views. While the South Carolina State Capitol building lowered the American and state flag after the tragedy, the confederate flag remained raised. This has sparked outrage among the inhabitants of South Carolina and the rest of the country. Citizens are calling for it’s removal because of the long history of oppression associated with this symbol.
The History of the Confederate Flag
At the start of his term, Abraham Lincoln was hardly a radical abolitionist, but after he was elected in 1860 several southern states decided to secede from the union, starting with South Carolina. They were followed shortly by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. After creating the Confederate States of America, the newfound nation required a flag that would set itself apart from the union. The confederate flag was created in order to represent an army that sought to uphold the institution of slavery throughout the country. Those who revere the confederate flag on the basis of its historical value are correct, it does have a history, but it’s not one of glory and tradition. It’s simply one of oppression, or being able to deny basic human rights to our country’s citizens. It is a symbol that has often been compared to the Third Reich’s use of the swastika. Neo-nazi groups still exist in Germany after WWII, but none dare bear the swastika. It has been reported that these fringe groups have sometimes used the confederate flag as a symbol of their hateful ideology.
In April of 1961 Charleston was participating in the Civil War Centennial. According to Daniel Harris’ account, a member of the the Centennial commission of South Carolina, the city raised the confederate flag for the opening celebrations on April 11th. At this point, the flag had been removed for the past century. The same day that this symbol of oppression was raised, the state of South Carolina and the national centennial commission were embroiled in a battle of their own. It was the midsts of the Civil Rights Movement and South Carolina remained a segregated state. Many members of Northern delegations included African American men and women who were refused entry to the segregated Francis Marion Hotel, where the centennial events were to be held.
Hollis remarks, “there should be no denying that white supremacy was a vital aspect of this state’s political will in 1861, just as it was in 1961. And there can be no separating the banners from this history.” He also went on to quote George Santayana, who said, “Loyalty to our ancestors does not include loyalty to their mistakes.”
During the century following the Civil War, the confederate flag was adopted by advocates of segregation, the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups. It was the symbol of the ‘Dixiecrats,’ a political party formed in the late 1940s in direct opposition to the Civil Rights movement, and Charleston shooter, Dylan Roof was photographed holding the flag on his personal website. Those who would defend the flag argue that it is symbolic of their heritage and legacy, and that it honors the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. Sociologist, Max Weber, describes this as ‘ the authority of the eternal yesterday.’ Jonathan S. Blake remarks, “An argument about heritage carries the weight of historic heroes and the blood of ancestors.”
Defenders of the flag use tradition and heritage to legitimize its place in the South. Unfortunately, making the debate regarding the flag an issue about honor and legacy, they distance themselves from current (and perhaps even past) atrocities that have been conducted in its name. There are, undoubtedly, other ways to preserve tradition and to honor those who perished in the Civil War without championing a symbol that represents racism and cruelty that so many endured during that time. These soldiers are dead, these battles are over, but the black men and women living in the South are still suffering because of this backwards plea for ‘tradition.’ In a recent survey conducted by NBC 80% of black Americans view the flag as a symbol of racism.
On Saturday, June 28th a pro-Confederate flag rally was held in Columbia, SC. One attendee, Ryan Hughes, argued that critics of the confederate flag “need a history lesson. They need to go back and look at what this flag really stands for, and that is states rights. That’s freedom from tyranny”
In reality, it’s probably people like Hughes that need a refresher. Certainly, the confederate flag is a symbol of a state’s rights, but rights to do what? To subjugate an entire race? If anything, the confederate flag is a symbol of tyranny, of the tyranny inflicted upon those denied their rights for hundreds of years.
For those who would continue to argue that the Confederate flag is somehow separate from the racist ideology of the 19th and 20th century, here’s a tweet from Syracuse University historian Jonathan Wilson:
What are your thoughts about this ongoing debate?