By: Larry Zhang, Senior Editor
First used as a battle flag by the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee, the “Confederate flag” as we know today was never officially recognized as a flag of the Confederate States of America. Nonetheless, it has been widely adopted as a symbol for the American South, as well as the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations. Today, however, the Confederate battle flag is quite divisive in its perception. Many Americans still acknowledge it as a symbol of slavery and systematic oppression, while many Southerners see it as a symbol of regional pride and heritage. This pride and heritage has taken on the form of bumper stickers, flag-flying 4x4s, and t-shirts. But just how racist is the Confederate flag?
On one hand, the flag obviously carries with it the notions of the Confederate States of America, a nation formed by eleven slave states because of the “uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states.” In other words, the Confederate flag represented states’ rights—rights that included owning slaves, nonetheless. This owning of slaves was a central reason for Southern succession, and since the flag represented the Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and their fight to uphold states rights’, the flag cannot hide its racist connotations.
That isn’t to say that Confederate soldiers weren’t fighting for other reasons, or that all soldiers had motivations rooted purely in slavery. It is estimated that in the South, only 385,000 families owned slaves, out of a white population of about 1,516,000 families. The majority of soldiers also did not come from slave-owning families, either. Thus, the real motivation for many officers and enlisted soldiers was their unwavering pride in their homelands, coupled with a general dislike of Northerners. Honor, duty, and peer pressure are also believed to be reasons for wanting to fight, though steadfast loyalty to individual home states, as in the case of General Lee to his native Virginia, is a major contender.
Whether soldiers in the South fought to defend their families and lands or whether they fought for other reasons is still secondary to the argument, however. Conflicts over slavery were still the primary reasons for Confederate succession in the big picture, and thus, there is no hiding the battle flag’s origin as a symbol for Southern armies who fought a war to preserve slavery. In other words, there is no shaking the flag’s association with hateful racism, a racism that degraded and dehumanized African Americans during the pre-and-post Civil War times. This, in turn, makes for quite a strong argument that the variant of the Confederate flag commonly flown today is indeed inherently racist.
On the other hand, many Americans, with Southerners in particular, argue that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage and pride. Their argument is quite compelling as well. One could argue that the flag is a symbol of those who were willing to die fighting and bleeding, many not even for slavery itself, in order to defend their families and homelands from invading Northern armies. On another note, Confederate President Jefferson Davis even had a written proposal to end slavery within a few years of succession. In one account of Abraham Lincoln, Historian Donald Livingston mentions that “Jefferson Davis was an enlightened slave holder who said that once the Confederacy gained its independence, it would mean the end of slavery. The Confederate Cabinet agreed to abolish slavery within five years after the cessation of hostilities in exchange for recognition by Britain and France.”
One could also argue that if anything, the American flag is actually more racist than the Confederate flag. The Stars and Stripes actually flew over slave ships, while no Confederate battle flag ever did. Slavery as an institutionalized system also prevailed for much longer under U.S. flags than under the Confederate flag, not to mention the countless injustices against other minority groups such as Native Americans (Trail of Tears, etc.) that occurred under many iterations of the American flag. Furthermore, the same groups that have been known to adopt the Confederate flag as a hate symbol have adopted the American flag to a much greater extent. The largest Ku Klux Klan march ever demonstrated occurred in Washington, D.C., where thousands of American flags were carried, though not a single Confederate one was. Thus, another large argument defending the Confederate flag is that although many hate groups have used the flag to represent their racist beliefs, such demonstrations do not make the flag inherently racist.
Today, the Confederate battle flag is flown throughout the South, as well as other parts of the United States. Southerners have long defended it as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, which is indisputable, though only to a certain extent. The unfortunate observation is that many of those who do fly the flag are the somewhat insular Americans who trash their empty beer cans and rusting cars right next to their flag, hardly representative of the more noble reasons for flying it in the first place. Nonetheless, the Confederate flag still carries with it a certain importance, foremost for the fallen soldiers who fought and defended their homes against the Union Army. On the other hand, it also carries with it homage to a nation that insisted upon preserving slavery as states’ rights, something largely racist in its own “right.”
To summarize, the Confederate flag is indeed an integral part of Southern history, and a source of pride and heritage for many. Its worth as a historical symbol also remains invaluably intact for the remembrance of those who died fighting for their individual states, though they died fighting for the Confederacy, nonetheless. Thus, it’s safe to say that although the Confederate flag will never shake its history of racism, nor will the American flag. The difference is that for many reasons, the Stars and Stripes will always be patriotic for Americans, but the same cannot be said for the Confederate flag. The difference is that the Stars and Stripes are perfectly fine to fly in public, but no, the same cannot be said for the Confederate flag.