The Troubled Resurgence of the Confederate Flag

Chris Springer looks at how the Confederate Flag has become a symbol of 20th-century rebellion.

Three versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America and the Confederate Battle Flag are shown on this printed poster from 1896. Standing at the center are Stonewall Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee,
Three versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America and the Confederate Battle Flag are shown on this printed poster from 1896. Standing at the center are Stonewall Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee,

Over 150 years after Appomattox, the last casualty of the American Civil War still awaits a final rest. The emblem of Southern rebellion – the Confederate battle flag – soldiers on, pressed back into service for an unlikely cause. Today the 'rebel flag' is a ubiquitous fixture of popular culture, worn on jackets and T-shirts by hundreds of thousands from Honolulu to Moscow and beyond.

Yet the flag's modem impact goes beyond a mere fashion statement. The Confederate banner also contains explosive political connotations that, like long-buried ammunition, can go off without warning. In Southern schools and colleges, racial skirmishes still erupt when white students display the flag. The state of Georgia is even considering removing the Confederate emblem that appears on its state flag, to avoid inciting controversy when Atlanta hosts the 1996 Olympic Games.

How did the emblem of a failed regional insurrection in the nineteenth century become the international pop icon, and racial powderkeg, that it is in the 1990s? Why didn't this battle relic just fade away? In the years after 1865, the flag looked set to do just that. Immediately following the war, the banner was used to symbolise the South's 'Lost Cause'. Southerners paid homage to their struggle, but they treated the goal of independence itself as defunct. Accordingly, they declared the Confederate flag to be furled, and symbolically interred it in the pages of history. Around the turn of the century, the sombre Lost Cause tradition became more of a celebration, and the flag's role in it increased. But the emblem was still restricted to Confederate commemorations and veterans' parades. The guardians of the Confederate tradition saw their flag as a sacred tribute to the Confederate dead, and thus they kept it out of popular culture and the political arena. With the advent of the 1940s, however, all that changed.

White Southern soldiers and sailors in the Second World War triggered the first shift in the flag's image. Around the globe, from France and Italy to Okinawa and the Solomon Islands, they hoisted the Confederate banner over ships and military bases. The Baltimore Evening Sun reported that these Southerners were honouring the Confederate military tradition – but there was more to it than that. Southern troops flew the flag, as one naval officer put it, 'to let the Yankees know the Americans south of the Mason- Dixon line are in this war'. Over-represented among the American rank-and-file, white Southern troops used the emblem to assert their presence and express regional pride. They gave the historical symbol a living meaning; in their hands the flag represented not so much the Confederacy or the Southern heritage, but rather the contemporary South.

To be sure, the flag raisings also invoked the Confederate legacy, but not exactly as Lost Cause defenders wished. For there was more than a hint of playfulness about these unreconstructed soldiers pretending to enlist the Confederate Army in the war effort. Even the Sun, while denying the rebel flag displays were 'youthful high jinks', had to concede they were 'an amusing gesture'. Significantly, several generations after the solemn consecration of the Lost Cause, young Southern men overseas were toying with the Confederate heritage.

Soon afterwards, their counterparts back home were doing the same. In October 1947, a few fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina walked into a souvenir shop in Chapel Hill and purchased six Confederate flags the owner was test-marketing. These students stirred up a stadium crowd at their school the next Saturday by waving the flags during a game of American football. A month later, fans from the University of Virginia brought rebel flags north to Philadelphia to cheer their team on against the University of Pennsylvania.

The South may have seen a few isolated incidents of this type before; but only in 1947 did they strike the chord that set off a regionwide reaction. The events at Chapel Hill were soon repeated at colleges across the South; at football games and social gatherings, waving the Confederate flag became a popular craze.

What was behind it all? Perhaps white Southerners at home, like those abroad, were grasping for symbols to reaffirm their identity. After all, the Second World War had accelerated the trend toward national homogenisation in America. Industrialisation and other impending changes endangered the distinctive, traditional character of the South. More importantly, segregation, to many whites the bedrock of their society, began to face challenges from the federal government. It is not clear whether racial concerns sparked the flag-waving directly, but the issue unquestionably fuelled its spread, turning a seemingly innocent gesture into a threat.

In early 1948, as President Truman pressed for Civil Rights legislation, some Southern Democrats called for an anti-Truman, segregationist electoral bloc in the South. Led by Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi, they organised the States' Rights Democratic Party. From the very beginning, the 'Dixiecrats', as the party was dubbed, appropriated the Confederate flag as their symbol. In February, supporters waved hundreds of flags as Governor Wright inaugurated the party in Jackson, Mississippi, and the banners became an integral part of later party gatherings.

The Dixiecrats were credited with putting the flag in the national spotlight at Philadelphia's Democratic Convention in July. Delegates who were Dixiecrat supporters staged a walkout to protest the Democrats' Civil-Rights platform. According to news reports (of uncertain accuracy) which appeared across the country, the delegates had waved a Confederate flag as they left. Two days later, at their own convention in Birmingham to nominate a presidential candidate, the Dixiecrats filled the convention hall with rebel flags and pictures of Confederate general, Robert E, Lee, and played the Southern anthem 'Dixie'. For their political and racial revolt, they mustered behind them all the iconography of the Confederacy.

To be sure, the Confederate flag had always been exclusive to whites and would always, to some degree, recall the racism of the Confederacy. But the Dixiecrat campaign greatly strengthened the links between the flag and white supremacism. The fad on college campuses became more explicitly racial after the Birmingham convention, as Southern students responded to the Dixiecrats' call to arms. Fraternities at the University of Alabama raised rebel flags over their houses immediately after the convention; one fraternity announced, '...the flags will fly until the North calls off its wolves from attempting to devour our Southern culture'.

The flag-waving expanded beyond Southern campuses only slowly at first, but by 1951 it was attracting nationwide attention. That autumn, Confederate flags flooded the entire country. Americans bedecked their cars, clothes and homes with them. The young, in particular, enjoyed riling their elders with what the New York Times called 'that pert, sassy banner'. Rebel flag sales soared several times higher than ever before: one source even claimed the Confederate flag was outselling the American flag nationwide.

Most members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a prominent remembrance society, came out against the flag fad. They said their sacred banner was being trivialised and dishonoured. 'We like to keep the flag before the young people because they do not learn enough about it from their history books', said Mrs Samuel West, President of the Virginia UDC. 'But we fear it is losing its significance through the loose way in which they use it'.

Thanks to the fad, the traditional meaning of the flag was indeed losing ground – on two fronts. Resurrected in supposed tribute to the Confederate heritage, the rebel flag was nevertheless promptly absorbed into American pop culture, imprinted on countless trinkets and cheap souvenirs. The star-studded blue X on a red field became a generic symbol of the South, and later even lost much of its Southernness. At the same time, segregationists were recasting the symbol in their own image.

The latter trend went practically unnoticed in the mainstream press, which either treated the flag fad as a light-hearted diversion or focused on the objections of UDC matrons. It was left to the black community to point out the racism of the craze. Black publications like the Pittsburgh Courier blasted the flag fad as a 'national disgrace', an attack on blacks' constitutional rights and a threat to democracy. On several occasions, blacks fought the fad. In New York, for instance, black department-store workers announced through their trade union that they would not handle any rebel-flag merchandise.

After integration of public schools was federally mandated in 1954, the flag came out into the streets, brandished by white mobs taunting blacks and threatening a bitter-end campaign of 'massive resistance'. It was then, historian Garvin Davenport has noted, that the 'dime-store Confederate flag' became the 'symbol of police brutality, schizophrenic defiance of national efforts towards racial justice, and a paranoiac retreat into an illusionary world of simple, violent answers to complex problems'. To this day, neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan bear the flag as their own.

Simultaneously, the Confederate flag has become a sort of folk symbol, not only among Southerners, but among certain subcultural groups; youths, truckers, bikers and 'good ole boys', for example. Seen frequently on belongings of white working-class males (baseball caps, pick-up trucks, leather jackets), the flag is used to strike a pose of populism and rebellion. This phenomenon has extended far beyond America's borders. In Europe, the flag decorates the wardrobes of countless teenagers. (Vienna and Budapest each have a store called 'The Rebel', selling paraphernalia embossed with the Confederate flag). Europeans have given the flag added significance as a symbol of Rockabilly music; the banner is often displayed in concerts or by fans. Yet even the journey across the Atlantic did not wash the stains of racism from the flag, as its pointed use by the European skinhead movement shows.

Is there not something schizophrenic about a symbol that is both a playful attention-getter and a virulent symbol of hatred? Actually, the two uses of the flag are not so far removed from each other. Their common denominator is rebellion against authority. And both grew out of the same fad; both trade on a shock value that no longer stems from North-South fraternal strife but from more recent racial upheavals. Today's flag is the legacy, not of General Lee and the Confederate Army of '61, but of Governor Wright and the collegiate pranksters of '47.

Chris Springer is an editor and freelance journalist. This article is adapted from The Rebel Flag, his 1990 undergraduate thesis at Broum University, Rhode Island.

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