This week, the Navy’s top admiral drafted an order that would prohibit the display of the Confederate battle flag in any public space aboard Navy installations, ships, aircraft, or submarines. The move follows a similar directive by the US Marine Corps, which moved to ban the use of Confederate flags in all Marine spaces back in April.
To many, the decision is not just an obvious one, but long overdue. The red banner with its starred blue X was, after all, the symbol of the greatest insurrection in American history, a rebellion by eleven states who waged war against the Union and made the United States armed forces their enemy.
But for some, the Confederate battle flag doesn’t represent any kind of mutiny, but rather, the idealized heritage of the American South. To those who support the use of the Confederate flag, displaying it on a Naval or Marine base doesn’t endorse rebellion, but rather, serves to enshrine some Southern pride.
And yet, 150 years after the Civil War, as the United States continues to confront its ugly, racist past head-on, there has been renewed debate over what exactly the American South should be proud of. Let’s examine some of the arguments for and against the continued display of the Confederate battle flag.
Part of History
A common defense for the use of the Confederate flag is that it represents the history of the American South, though such a conversation rarely takes into account the most heinous facets of that bygone world — slavery.
When the Southern states declared their independence from the Union in 1860, Southern political leaders insisted that the secession was a matter of states’ rights, and that the proposed Confederate States of America would allow each state to set its own rules, instead of being dictated to by some federal government.
But you can’t have a conversation about states’ rights without asking the question: a state’s right to what?
The question of slavery had become the country’s defining political and economic debate, and there’s no denying that Southern secession was a response to abolitionist movements across the nation. The Confederacy was formed for the purpose of allowing states to continue enslaving black people. Any effort to deny these motives is a severe instance of historical revisionism.
But doesn’t the South have other things to be proud of?
The despicable history of enslaving an entire race aside, the American South has tons to be proud of. The South has given us leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis, instrumental forces in the Civil Rights Movement. The South helped develop space travel and, from its shores, has launched over 200 crewed flights to the stars. The South has given us the literature of Harper Lee and William Faulkner, fried chicken, barbecue, Coca-Cola, Disneyworld and purely American music – jazz, blues, gospel, country and rock n’ roll, all came from contributions of Southern blacks and whites. All should be a source of pride.
But the Confederate battle flag as displayed doesn’t represent the best of the American South. It’s important to note, by the way, that the Confederacy actually used a variety of flags throughout its short existence, but the most recognizable red-and-blue banner was specifically used in battle against Union forces. Today, waving that banner does not mean you want to honor the true legacy of greatness from the American South. It means you want to honor those who would lift up arms against the American military for the asinine cause of the states’ right to allow the buying and selling of human beings.
But what about our ancestors who died for the flag?
There are those who would argue that the Confederate battle flag is a way to honor their ancestors, who picked up arms to protect their home state from invading Northern troops. In fact, organizations like United Daughters of the Confederacy were formed to honor immediate relatives who died in the Civil War, and were responsible for erecting statues of Confederate leaders across the South. To them, the Confederate flag is a way to memorialize their loved ones’ efforts.
But the Confederate States of America never became a republic. The four-year Civil War ended with the Southern states rejoining the Union, and establishing a truce that lasts to this day. While it is understandable to want to honor your grandfather’s memory, you have to recognize that we’ve decided to live in a single united country represented by the American flag. The Confederate flag, meanwhile, no longer represents the rebellious efforts of a few Southern rebels. The truth is, the meaning of symbols change.
The Evolution of a Symbol
During the Jim Crow era, black Americans were terrorized by the epidemic of lynching, were prohibited from exercising their right to vote and were systemically segregated, forced into under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, and excluded from financial services that would allow them to build up a better life. All the while, Southern leaders who supported this unequal system used the Confederate battle flag to represent the cause of perpetual segregation.
It’s impossible, then, to argue that the Confederate flag does not stand for racism, because for over a century, it represented just that. Consider another symbol of hate, the swastika. The Nazis of Germany appropriated the geometric shape from an ancient Hindu tradition, in which the symbol represented good luck. But after it was adopted as the official insignia of the Nazi regime, it became nearly impossible to associate the swastika with anything else. Yes, it is still infrequently used in some Eurasian cultures as a good omen, but you cannot print a swastika today thinking that people will associate it with anything but hatred and genocide.
And that is the case with the Confederate battle flag. Whatever your association with the American South, you cannot deny that many people see the Confederate flag, and are reminded of human slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and an armed rebellion against the United States military.
A good way to better celebrate Southern pride would be to find a new symbol, one that does not represent so much ugliness to so many.