The Confederate Flag Will Rise Again (And Again)

Andrew Belonsky :: Tuesday, June 1st, 2010 1:00 pm

The Confederate States of America lost their war 145 years ago. Why, then, do they and their flag continue to arouse scandal, like the one unfolding in South Carolina, where only two of that state’s six gubernatorial candidates support an ongoing campaign to remove the rebel banner from state property? Why does this emblem, so often associated with racism, continue to captivate? Will the Confederacy ever die? Should it? Probably not.

Confederate sympathizers are fond of saying, “The South will rise again.” Despite Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other right-wingers’ sporadic speeches on secession, the idea of the South breaking off again doesn’t seem too likely. Yet the “South” does have a habit of popping up from time to time, especially when it comes to Confederate Memorial Day, which consistently fuels debate.

Last year, South Carolina Sen. Robert Ford, who is black, pushed for state offices to take off on the Holiday. Said Ford at the time, “A black person needs to know what a white person goes through in South Carolina and vice versa. If you’re born in South Carolina, it’s your history too. We need to know what made Southern whites do what they did…” Now Ford’s running for governor, and still sees little point in protesting the Confederate flag.

South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, has been debating this flag for years. In 1994, the year of the Republican Revolution, the Palmetto State voted on whether the flag should remain high above the Statehouse, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the banner found a lower staff, between the Statehouse and legislative buildings. That move did little to assuage organizations like the NAACP, which maintains a boycott against the state, as does the NCAA: the college basketball group won’t play championships in South Carolina.

Most of the candidates agree that a new debate on the confederate flag won’t accomplish too much. Republican Rep. Gresham Barrett insists, “I think it’s an issue that Republicans and Democrats, blacks, whites across this state had a compromise on and it’s such a deep and divisive issue, I think there’s other things we can do to move our state forward.” In fact, prolonged debate could very well make things worse.

This year’s political climate resembles that of the 1990s, when Republicans raced to the head of the political pack, and Pulitzer-prize winner Tony Horwitz embarked on a tour of the South to write Confederates in the Attic, a survey of civil war remembrance in the region. It’s a fascinating read that helps explain why people continue to revere the Confederate States, and its flag.

Though written in 1998, the sentiments relayed in Confederates closely resemble the today’s political debates, which are dominated by Tea Partiers who grouse and gripe about losing America. “Our ancestors were a little off with their timing, but their rebellion against federal government is finally seeing fruition,” a Republican lawmaker told Horwitz way back then. Any effort to dismantle this cultural marker would no doubt be met with a more robust outcry from the right, who feel just as endangered as many of the South’s Confederate sympathizers. But there are other reasons a Confederate flag should remain on display.

In no way do I think the Confederate states deserve reverence. Still, they should be included in the larger American narrative, for the civil war remains an integral part of American history. To ignore, whitewash or otherwise subdue those four years would do our nation a huge disfavor. We can’t shove the Confederacy aside simply because it’s distasteful to contemporary, “post-racial” America. Nor should it be vilified outright.

To immediately equate the flag with slavery and racism has unintended consequences. First, it paints all Southerners as racists. Yes, some confederate groups still preach off-color rhetoric: one group, the Children of the Confederacy, teaches that slaves “were always ready and willing to serve” their masters. But not every supporter adheres to such ideology: again, Sen. Robert Ford, who supports the flag, is black. To equate the flag with straightforward racism oversimplifies the war, which was just as much about culture as it was about a slave-based agricultural economy.

Many in the South see the Civil War as the North simply dominating a less cosmopolitan region. “The South is a good place to look at what America used to be, and might have become if the South has one,” a Horwitz source insisted. “If something’s fucked up, the North did it.” Many in the South continue to feel trampled, and disowned, by the North. To alienate them would do our national cohesion a disservice. That doesn’t mean, however, that Confederate flag supporters are entirely right, because the flag being flown in South Carolina and brandished on Lynyrd Skynyrd shirts isn’t about government rebellion or saving Southern culture. It’s all about war.

The Confederate flag took on many shapes, sizes and incarnations. In fact, there were at least six different “Confederate” flags. The one with which we’re all familiar I actually a battle flag, one used by Confederate armies to mark their military side. The political Confederate flag goes by the name “Stars and Bars,” and more closely resembles the early American flag’s circular star formation.

If people want to remember and celebrate the confederacy, they would be well advised to reclaim Stars and Bars as their symbol of resistance, rather than a hawkish banner that represents separatism. Even if South Carolina flag were to be removed, the Confederate flag would go on waving across the nation, and not just on pick up trucks: a number of state flags, including Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, find inspiration in the confederate design. In that light, taking down the Confederacy – and ending this insignia scuffle – becomes more than just a state issue. It becomes a national one, and not one should be solved with censorship.

Image via SeeMidTN’s Flickr.