Once again a spotlight shines on what is universally recognized as the Confederate flag due to the recent massacre on June 17, 2015 committed by Dylann Roof inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. There has been a call to remove the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina state Capitol building and any other state buildings within the USA. Many large retailers, including Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears, eBay, and Target, have stated they will no longer allow the sale of this flag at their stores. To further tensions, since the massacre and the demand for the flag’s removal, 7 black churches throughout the south have been subject to fire with 4 of them currently being labeled as arson (See map below). All of this has greatly intensified the “debate” over what this flag stands for today on social media pages.
Many believe the flag symbolizes racism and hatred and would like to see the flag relegated to museums as a piece of history and a reminder of the root cause of the Civil War. A war they believe was fought over the slave owners’ rights to continue to own and recognize African people as less than human. Today, defenders of the flag state that it is only an expression of intangible heritage. A sense of pride for a family tree that is firmly rooted within the grounds of the southern states particularly those that were involved in the Civil War. A war that they believe was mostly about property rights and taxation. So before we can answer the question of what the flag stands for we have to know how this flag came into existence and how it has lived on for over 150 years after the Civil War ended.
It is debatable that the war came to be because of property rights and the tariffs imposed solely on the south. Manufactured goods were not produced in the South. They were either imported from overseas or delivered from the North. Either way it was a large expense, whether it was shipping fees or the federal tariff, which was added to the price of the goods. The south more often chose importation since it was often cheaper than shipping from the North. So the in the end the South paid most of the federal tariffs which accounted for about 90% of the federal government’s annual income. Slaves, considered property, were worth the total value of all the farmland and their buildings in the South. In 1860 it has been estimated that there were 4 million slaves worth close to $3 billion. In the 11 states that eventually formed the Confederacy, 4 out of 10 people were slaves and they produced more than half the agricultural labor in those states. There was also much debate on slave owners having to pay taxes for each slave or raising taxes on goods produced by slaves or the land itself that produced goods from slave labor. Another way to squeeze more money out of Southern land and slave owners. When you look at it from this perspective perhaps you can say the reason for secession really was about property rights, taxation, and what brought about the desire to be autonomous from the northern states.
So then why then do so many people believe the Civil War was a racist war that was primarily about slavery?
Was it the statements made by the President of the Confederate States of America (CSA) Jefferson Davis?
“African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, social, and a political blessing.”
“My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses… We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him — our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”
Could it be the reasons given by a few states as to why they were seceding from the Union?
Mississippi (01/09/1861): “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
Georgia (01/29/1861): “The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers. With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers. The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.”
Texas (02/02/1861): “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Maybe something said during The Cornerstone Speech from Vice President of the CSA, Alexander Stephens March 21, 1861?
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” (1)
Or perhaps the statements made by the designer of the Second national flag for the CSA, known as the Stainless Banner, William T. Thompson? He referred to his design as “The White Man’s Flag.” The white field that comprised a large part of the flag’s design elements symbolized the “supremacy of the white man.” “As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism.” “As a people we are fighting maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”
Based on the preceding quotes there should be no doubt that this war was fought over slavery. Now if you still refuse to accept that, then let’s choose a reason you’d be more willing accept. How about property rights? But wait, slaves were considered nothing more than property. Okay then, let’s say taxation on the goods being produced by the plantations. Hold on… since those goods could not have been produced without slave labor then that would cancel that out. Alright then, the reason for the war was money. Plain and simple. Money that could be used to expand one’s plantation in order to produce more goods although that would require more slaves to do so. Slaves that could be bought with or even sold for money. So no matter what reason you chose the Civil War, either directly or by proxy, was about slavery.
Now that we’ve established that let’s focus on what is widely recognized as the symbol of the American South… “the Confederate Flag”. The flag that is also known as the rebel flag, the Dixie flag, and the Southern Cross. It is also incorrectly referred to as the “Stars and Bars” which is actually the name of the first national flag of the CSA. After the Civil War ended, the flag occasionally turned up here and there. Mostly at events to commemorate fallen soldiers. When the struggle for the civil rights of black Americans in the mid-20th century started gaining ground, the flag which was not much more than a museum exhibit, experienced a rebirth around 1948. South Carolina politician Strom Thurmond ran for president under the newly founded States Rights Democratic Party, also known as the Dixiecrats (a right-wing faction of the Democratic Party that drew its support from southern states). At campaign stops supporters greeted Thurmond with American flags, state flags, and Confederate battle flags. One principal theme of their political ideology that separated them from the rest of the Democrats was that African-Americans were racially inferior. Ending segregation would devastate the South’s economy and politics through integrated workplaces and voting booths. The belief among Dixiecrats was that black Americans were racially inferior. The party, which did not run local or state candidates, lost the 1948 presidential election its leaders generally returned to the Democratic Party and desegregation marched onward.
After the Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education gave black American children access to all schools, Confederate battle flags popped up more and more. In 1956, just two years after that decision, the Confederate battle flag was reintroduced as part of Georgia’s state flag. It was considered by many to be an objection against school desegregation. On the night of September 29, 1962 University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) students, waving a Confederate flag, protested against the enrollment of a black US military veteran named James Meredith. Meredith, a native Mississippian who served 9 years in the U.S. Air Force, had arrived at the school’s Oxford Mississippi campus to more than 2,000 students and other protesters who gathered to bock his way. The protest turned into a riot between the pro-segregationist civilians and federal and state forces that ended with 2 deaths, over 300 injured, and many others arrested.
The Confederate battle flag has been integrated into Southern state flags, seen at Southern universities’ sporting events, and on public buildings. This is the same flag that was never officially adopted by the Confederate Congress nor was it flown over any state capitols while the Confederacy existed. So given the flag’s history it is no surprise that it has become a symbol used by organizations such as the KKK (which was founded by 6 Confederate war veterans), Nazi skinheads, and various Aryan movements. Do you honestly believe they chose the Confederate battle flag because it was pleasing to the eye? No, they picked it because it aligns with their core beliefs. Beliefs which are deeply rooted in a heritage that was created so Southern states could continue to exploit and devalue the people who made up about 40% of the Confederate population. It has become inextricably linked to white supremacist groups as they are flown at virtually every white pride demonstration today.
It was already highly unlikely that the flag would ever be viewed in any positive way whatsoever. The recent actions of Dylann Roof and the subsequent church burnings, along with the racist responses by those who are currently defending the flag on social media, are not helping the heritage defense. But the news that the KKK will be holding a pro-Confederate flag rally on July 18 should end the debate once and for all… but it won’t. They already lost this “debate” 150 years ago and will do all they can to not become two-time losers. It matters not. The symbolic meaning of the Confederate battle flag should be perfectly clear to anyone with a modicum of intelligence. The flag has been and always will be forever intertwined with a HERITAGE OF HATE.
- (1)Source:Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War (Philadelphia, 1886), pp. 717–729