Look Away, Dixie Land

Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace is shown in this Oct. 19, 1964 photo speaking in Glen Burnie, Md. at a rally supporting Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater. (AP Photo)

A number of the stories about the removal of the so-called “Confederate flag” from above the state capitol in South Carolina have referenced that the occasion marks the first time in fifty-four years that the flag was not flown.

Fifty-four years. As in, the flag was put up in 1961. Given the defenses proffered by some of the people who wanted the flag to stay up, this 1961 raising of the flag is possibly the most interesting wrinkle of the whole sordid tale.

As you might remember from American history class, combat activities in Civil War started on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederate Army that surrounded Fort Sumter was flying this flag, known as the Bonnie Blue Flag,1 which was a short-lived symbol of the new Confederate States:

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Bonnie Blue

Additionally, the official flag of the Confederate States at the time of Fort Sumter was the “Stars and Bars” flag with seven stars:

stars and bars

Two days later, on April 14, 1861, when the Confederate Army took command of Fort Sumter, the U.S. flag was taken down and this flag, known as the “Palmetto Guard Flag” was raised over the fort:

palmetto guard

Fast forward to 1961. South Carolina, wanting ostensibly to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, decided to fly a Confederate flag near Fort Sumter in Charleston. Yet, for whatever reason–which we will come back to–South Carolina did not choose any of the flags that would actually be relevant to South Carolina, Fort Sumter, or anything else that existed within the context that existed at the start of the Civil War. Instead, they opted for the Battle Flag of the Northern Army of Virginia.

This same Virginia flag was then moved to the South Carolina state capitol a little while later, at the request of state Rep. John A. May, who planned to introduce a resolution to fly the flag over the capitol for one year. The resolution was approved in 1962; however, it contained no date for removal of the flag. So…there it stayed.

The question, however, is why they chose the Virginia flag, rather than a flag that actually had relevance to the start of the war or the state of North Carolina. And the answer, plain and simple, is that the flag was an intentional pushback against the federal government in general and integration in particular.

You see, that’s the part that the “heritage, not hate” crowd glosses over (or, perhaps more accurately, whitewashes): the Dixiecrats specifically chose the Virginia flag as a symbol of their opposition to integration in 1948. As the Georgia State Senate Research Office reported in 2000:

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. […]

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.

As further proof of this change in the flag’s meaning, the Georgia report notes (emphases added):

Georgia of course, changed its flag [to include the Confederate battle 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. […]

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.

It is worth remembering at this point in our story that Brown v. Board of Education was actually the consolidation of five cases from five different states. One of those cases was Briggs v. Elliott, which had been brought in — you guessed it — South Carolina. After Brown was handed down in 1954, and Brown II followed in 1955 with the instruction for states to integrate “with all deliberate speed,” South Carolina opted to continue building its “equalization schools,” rather than actually going forward with the ordered integration.

By 1957, papers as far away as Chicago were writing articles like, “Foes of Integration Most Adamant in South Carolina.”

There is one issue, however, on which Charlestonians, and South Carolinians in general, are not waiting with drawn shades for a solution. That is school desegregation. Nowhere is opposition to it more adamant than this state, which is the birthplace of the state’s rights movement and has a proportion of Negroes in its population only exceeded by that in Mississippi.

Claiming in 2015 that the Virginia flag is about “heritage” is not necessarily a false statement. It only becomes false when the assertion ignores that the last sixty-seven years of that heritage is specifically, intentionally, and unambiguously about racial segregation.

While revisionist history and deluded rationalization might allow a person to convince himself that the flag isn’t racist, that doesn’t change the objective truth about the flag. And no state, county, or city in 2015 America should be in the business of flying racist symbols over public buildings, no matter the amount of revisionism and delusion involved.

 


  1. Which some of you might notice was the nickname given by Rhett Butler to his daughter in Gone With The Wind

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24 COMMENTS

  1. Sure many fought for slavery but many also for the loss of personal freedoms, states rights and their personal beliefs. Like all things there were different views. Many are proud of their heritage. Give those that did not fight for slavery or hatred their right to be proud of their southern heritage.

  2. Yes, as were Strom Thurmond and a number of other Dixiecrats. Wallace never had to change party affiliations (nor did Faubus) because of the politics of his state and the time he was there, but it’s no stretch to say that the Dixiecrats of the 1960s would be Republicans now. The mass exodus that started after the Civil Rights Act basically flipped party identity in the south on its head.

  3. That argument misses the point entirely. Yes, there were some who didn’t think it was about slavery (despite the notices of secession mentioned slavery repeatedly in every instance). But just because a couple people didn’t see the war as being “about” slavery doesn’t change what was really going on. Just because some people convince themselves today that the flag is not racist doesn’t change the fact that the people who specifically brought that flag to prominence starting in 1948 did so for racist reasons. A person could (in theory) rationalize a reason for having pride in the Nazi flag; that doesn’t mean that the flag is not offensive to the vast majority of others.
    And here’s the bigger thing — if a person wants to have pride in their southern/Confederate heritage, then they have the option of flying any one of a number of flags that were the actual flags of their state or of the CSA. To eschew those options and pick the racist symbol is nonsensical if you are embracing heritage only.

  4. I should also add, I don’t think party affiliation matters much in this context. I would never pretend like there aren’t people on both sides who want to make the “heritage” argument without thinking it through.

  5. The comparison of the Nazi and Stars and Bars is ridiculous. I will never try to argue to change someone’s mind on this subject because it is futile. I am a die hard Democrat and was a National Delegate to the Convention but I do not live in the past nor am I responsible for any past wrongs but also I am broad minded enough to believe that everyone has a right to their own beliefs. Radicals on either side excepted. Last word from me.

  6. Oh I just thought it was comical with the pic of George Wallace on the blog! You mention Strom Thurmond and I know he switched parties sometime around the Civil Rights act of 1964 but why didn’t Martin Luther King Jr?.

  7. To your second reply, regardless of party affiliation, I’m uncertain why over 100 years later, we as a country seem to be going back in time vs forward.

  8. That’s a great question. I’ve read two theories: one is that, like Faubus, MLK was in a position where he was better off not switching at the time. The other is that he was trying to become less partisan in his politics and he thought that making an overt switch would undermine that. I think, 50 years removed from that era, society has lost sight of how unsettled things like party ID were as integration turned the south on its head. Which probably helps when the revisionist historians want to change what the flag (or anything else) meant.

  9. I have not weighed in any where yet on the whole flag issue; I do appreciate the very specific notation of American history above. It is absolutely monumental that we ignore and or let the endless distractions that divert and tear us apart slip, ride on, go, like water, away. The country is awesome and great coast to coast, north and south. I have never been anywhere, and I have travelled through the states, where I did not feel and truly love all of it dearly. I will finish my book, for the greatest thing about America is the people that live and belong to her.
    I found it incredible to read lately, that in 1957 a federal law was passed making all who died in the Civil War, American War veterans, all of them, those from the north and those from the south. And we revere all our war veterans and thank them.

  10. Absolutely they fought for state rights and economic reasons. The South had two pillars of economic viability. Agriculture and the interstate slave trade. When the war began thru had over 4 million slaves worth 4 Billion dollars.
    So yes, they fought to keep slavery, repeal the 1808 ban on the international slavery trade, and expand it into the western territories.
    This flag was ALWAYS from the day of its inception, about white supremacy. It’s designer, South Carolina’s own William Porcher Miles was an extremist proslavery advocate. Not only did he want the continuation of slavery, he wanted slavery expanded to the Western territories. So determined was he to continue slavery that he pushed SC to secede and he advocated the war. Miles ironically enough was once the mayor of Charleston.
    Miles flag was originally considered for the national flag for the Confederacy. But lost to the Stars and Bars which only flew in battle once at Manassas (also known as the first battle of Bull Run).
    At Manassas Confederate soldiers got confused between their flag and the Union’s and fired on one of their own brigades.
    After the battle General Pierre G.T. Beauregard determined that a battle flag that was clearly known as the Confederate forces was needed.
    William Miles as it so happened was serving as the General’s aide-de-camp. He gave the General his design.
    The battle flag was presented in Centerville and Manassas, Virginia to General Robert E. Lee’s newly reorganized forces now known as the Confederate Army of Northern, Virginia.
    Subsequently Miles would get his wish for his flag to be the national flag of the Confederacy when William T Thompson the editor of the Savannah Morning News suggested that it be placed upon a field of pure white.
    Thompson stated that the white symbolized the “supremacy of the white man”. He also said in an editorial in his newspaper, “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. Such a flag would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG. As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.”
    William Miles delivered a speech supporting the simple white design that was eventually approved. He argued that the battle flag must be used, but for a national flag it was necessary to emblazon it, but as simply as possible, with a plain white field.
    It became the 2nd national flag of the Confederacy and was named the Stainless Banner. However it was more commonly known as the “white man’s” flag.
    This flag would be altered later into the third flag of the national Confederacy when a Major Rogers would suggest adding a broad red vertical stripe to the right side of the flag. At rest the flag looked like one of truce or surrender. This flag was called the Bloodstained Banner.
    The Battle flag originally designed by Miles was used as a flag in the field of battle and after the war would be used as a symbol of white supremacy by those intent on obstructing the freedom of Black people and other non-whites.
    Miles not only believed that Black people should be slaves, he believed that they deserved to be enslaved because they had neither the natural birthright, nor capacity to be freemen.
    It’s true that many of those fighting weren’t clear on the purpose. But what is true is that the 1% got everybody else to fight for their interests.
    There simply is no place this flag was ever a nice, warm and fuzzy in its lineage.

  11. At Ron Farrell, that was a good read. I’m a proud democrat myself though lately have been questioning what it stands for

  12. These people that wave the confederate flag and claim heritage not hate are traitors to theUnited States. We are one nation under the United States Flag. The Confederate flag is a symbol of another nation that fought against the United States.

  13. Doggoneit Matt, there you go again. You are far too kind and diplomatic when you conclude :Claiming in 2015 that the Virginia flag is about ‘heritage’ is not necessarily a false statement. It only becomes false when the assertion ignores that the last sixty-seven years of that heritage”. But, that concedes too much. You know that it is a false statement just based on its use from 1861-1961. It was the flag of secession (or, more accurately, one of the flags), and seceesion was, of course, based on slavery. From 1865 – 1961, it was used at a lot more than just cementery ceremonies. It was used, unofficially, by the Ku Klux Klan, in night rides of terror against blacks and even by Legislatures as a symbol of resistance against Reconstruction. The flag has always been about racism. But I know, you are being diplomatic again. Not wanting to step on any toes and not wanting to rock any boats.
    http://www.vox.com/2015/6/20/8818093/confederate-flag-south-carolina-charleston-shooting

  14. Both flags were based explicitly on racism. The comparison is appropriate. It is sad when otherwise intelligent folks cannot see the overwhelming and obvious evidence because they choose to cling to a romanticized version of history.

  15. Speaking the truth about how this flag has been used to terrorize black folks is not a “distraction” nor does it “tear us apart”, unless by “us”, you mean white folks. The thing “tearing” the United States “apart” is flying a flag of treason by our government. You see, treason, by its definition, is “divisive”.

  16. “Heritage” is a racists way of saying selective history, as in, “I’m going to ignore the fact that my heritage hung your heritage from a tree. Don’t wanna talk about your heritage.” Now THAT is privilege.

  17. Weldon…..my father came over from Germany on the boat. That’s as much as I will say here. While I, having been born in the US, agree I cannot be held liable for the sins of a father or family, the comparison is appropriate.

  18. Re: what it stands for, that’s actually what I spent an hour talking to the Clark County Dems about on Thursday night. At the state level especially, there isn’t a discernable ID, and that’s a huge problem.

  19. You are incorrect. At the time of the civil war, the state’s had the right to secede, so therefore the CSA soldiers were not traitors. Also after the war, the US Government recognized all CSA vets as American veterans. But if you want to consider CSA soldiers as traitors, so be it, as uneducated as it is. I am the proud descendent of a CSA soldier. Better the descendent of a traitor than a coward.

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