Apparently a lot of Americans view the Confederate flag as a symbol of “Southern heritage” rather than racism. Ok, a lot of white Americans. According to recent polls, the population in general is split 42% to 42% on that question. However, 75% of blacks think of it as racist, as opposed to about a third of whites. The disconnect here is not just racial, it’s historical. The meaning of the flag has morphed over the last century and a half from a battle flag of Confederate soldiers, to the flag of the Confederacy, to a rallying point for racist dead-enders and segregationists, to a social symbol (for some) of generalized tribal identity and rebellion against authority. Call this last one the “Dukes of Hazzard” interpretation. Those dead-enders expended a lot of ink and energy plastering over the realities of slavery and the fight to preserve it, resulting in the soft focus “lost cause” and states’ rights interpretation of the American Civil War.
Still, to most of the African-American population of this country it is the graphic design equivalent of dropping the N-bomb. And isn’t that kind of impolite, no matter what the symbol means in someone’s own mind?
If we really want to know the original meaning, we should ask the people who originally fought under that banner. If we can’t trust the Confederates to understand the purpose of the Confederacy, who can we trust? Luckily for us they wrote about it. Every southern state issued an article of secession. Six of them were short and pro-forma; just declarations that on such a date they were no longer part of the United States. Virginia passed a pro-forma article with a reference to “slave-holding states.” However, four states gave their reasons. In those articles it’s just slave-slavery-slavitty-slave-slave, beginning to end. To wit:
Georgia’s Declaration of Secession: 35 mentions of slavery, starting in the first sentence.
Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession: 7 direct mentions of slavery, starting in the second sentence, plus 4 indirect mentions, including a reference to loss of “property.”
South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession: 18 mentions of slavery, starting in the first sentence.
Texas’s Declaration of Secession: 22 mentions of slavery, starting in the first substantive paragraph.
Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee passed pro-forma articles of secession, without any reference to motivation.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in The Atlantic, has an excellent article that expands upon this, quoting the writings of southern politicians, journalists, and Confederate veterans. It’s slavery all the way down.
Of course, there are people who say that taking the Confederate flag down will dishonor Confederate soldiers. Good. My maternal great-grandfather served in a Virginia regiment during the Civil War. (You read that right – he was in his fifties when my grandmother was born. I’m just a handshake away.) He was wrong. His fight to preserve the institution of slavery was shameful. I haven’t investigated enough to know, but he was probably a slaveholder himself. I do not honor his memory. Our shared genetic material does not soften my view of him. I owe my allegiance to the living and future generations, not to the dead.
Relegating the Confederate flag to museums is just a beginning. Understanding the context of that symbol is the start of unraveling a toxic myth in the popular, anecdotal version of American history. At the moment it’s the very least we can do.