The Confederate battle flag has long been controversial, but has witnessed unprecedented attention since nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were gunned down by a deranged man seething with racial hatred.
Debate about recognizing the flag within the former Confederacy has resulted in several states either taking it down or calling its removal. For some, the flag is a symbol of southern pride and a means to honor the bravery of ancestors willing to die for their country. For others, it is racist, a reminder of when the South was determined to maintain slavery and Jim Crow. Some ask, “What is all the fuss about? It’s only a flag!” Yet symbols, just like words—seemingly small things—have consequences. Is the Confederate battle flag a symbol of states’ rights and brave soldiers or of racial inequality and division?
One way to answer that question is to understand that despite cries of “states’ rights,” had there never been slavery, there would never have been secession. In that case, there would have never been a Civil War. Had there never been a Civil War and the Confederacy, where would have never been a rebel flag. The war centered on the preservation of slavery in the South and this flag is so closely tied to that idea that it can never be a symbol that unites. South Carolina, where the war began, declared shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln: “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Slaves, South Carolina insisted, were “incapable of becoming citizens.” There is little ambiguity in what the Confederacy stood for and what its battle flag represented.
There is something else to consider. Those who answered the call to battle were brave, but does anyone today wish the South had won? Except for a few white supremacists, isn’t everyone thankful that the Confederacy lost? Have we contemplated a world in which the South would have won? The soldiers were brave, but their cause was not just. Honoring their flag is wrong for any state government. Some argue that although the flag had its origins in the preservation of slavery, it came in time to represent southern pride. But at an official level, it came full circle in 1962 to reclaim its racist roots when it was hoisted atop the South Carolina state capitol in protesting integration. As long as the flag remains, the past will never truly be past. What exactly is that past?
Black life in the South in the era of Jim Crow had been a nightmare. Laws and customs arose following the end of slavery and the Reconstruction. Because the former Confederacy began passing Black Codes limiting freedom for African Americans, Congress became outraged. This brought on the era of Radical Reconstruction, and lawmakers dealt with the South by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, followed by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1867, both of which granted citizenship to everyone born in the United States.
The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, declared that the right to vote “shall not be denied anyone on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Although voting rights could not be denied because of race, the states found ways to limit black suffrage for other reasons. For example, when Mississippi—a state with a black majority—adopted a new constitution in 1890, it limited the vote to those who could read and understand that constitution. The new law did disqualify some illiterate whites, but disfranchisement was clearly geared toward blacks. By 1892, African Americans still eligible to vote dropped from 189,000 to a meager 8,615. To place that in perspective, Mississippi whites who survived the restrictive law numbered 68,127.
Other states developed similar measures. In addition to literary tests, they adopted such requirements as length of residency, property ownership, and the poll tax, the latter disqualifying impoverished blacks by the thousands. These could all be incorporated into state law without saying a word about race.
These efforts met their goal of disenfranchisement, but some in the South were willing to go further. The Ku Klux Klan formed and began terrorizing black citizens shortly after the war. The Klan went after blacks who went to school or voted as well as whites who supported them.
By the 1880s, whites saw that an enemy had emerged—the “New Negro”— those who were born after the demise of slavery and were nearing their twenties. Slavery had kept blacks docile and submissive, white southerners reasoned, but with emancipation, they were regressing to their natural state of bestiality. Prominent intellectuals propagated this theory in print. Harvard professor Nathaniel Southgate Shaler wrote in 1884 that for free blacks, “there will naturally be a strong tendency, for many generations to come for them to revert to their ancestral conditions,” which were primitive and unrestrained. With these ideas prevalent, fears of race-mixing escalated. The belief arose that black men found white women too desirable to resist. The way southerners eliminated any possibility of intimacy between the races was through rigidly enforced segregation, which quickly went from custom to law.
The laws leading to full-blown Jim Crow began in New Orleans when in 1890, the Louisiana legislature approved segregation in its railcars. The US Supreme Court upheld the law in 1896 with a 7–1 vote in Plessy v. Ferguson. Economically impossible to maintain separate buses for whites and blacks traveling the same route, the problem was solved with whites sitting in the front seats and blacks in the back. Beginning in 1922 taxis in Mississippi forbade white and black passengers from sharing a ride unless the black passenger was a domestic servant to the white one.
Segregation made its way to every social situation. If public places could not accommodate a separation of the races, a total ban of blacks became the norm. Separate restrooms, drinking fountains, and even pay phones designated “White” and “Colored” were seen throughout most southern communities. Hospitals and jails regularly segregated their patients and their prisoners. Blacks addressed whites as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss.” Whites did not reciprocate but called blacks by their first names, or used terms such as “boy,” “girl,” or “uncle.” The Plessy ruling created a doctrine of “separate,” but “equal” was never part of the game.
Because sex between the races (or rather, its prevention) was the basis for segregation, the consequences were usually deadly if the lines were crossed. Throughout the years of Jim Crow, accusations of interracial intimacy unleashed emotions in white men that only violence could satisfy. As the myth of the over-sexed black male developed, vigilantes were quick to dish out punishments that had the tacit approval, if not outright sanction, of the law, government officials, the press, and even the clergy. What emerged was a long dark era of lynching during which thousands of African Americans throughout the South died at the hands of white mobs. Black males in the post-war era understood the possibility of death by lynching from the time they were children. Lynchers and their supporters saw this form of punishment as an extension of the law. The rhetoric of the influential did not fall on deaf ears. Rebecca Felton, an educated feminist, lecturer, and in 1922, first woman in the US senate, encouraged southern men in 1897 that “if it takes lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.” James Vardaman, Mississippi governor from 1904-08, was just as firm in his views. “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”
It is no surprise that in this atmosphere, perpetrators had little to fear, and arrests were few and far between. Lynch statistics were not accurately kept until 1882 when the Chicago Tribune began issuing annual reports. In total, 4,730 documented lynchings occurred throughout the South between 1882 and 1954. The frequency declined dramatically by mid-century so that of the total number, only thirty-six were reported between 1940–54.
The decline was due to NAACP activity in seeking anti-lynching legislation that kept the issue before Congress. Although never passed, over 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced between 1900 and 1969. Other groups such as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching also worked hard. Ida B. Wells Barnett was relentless in her own crusade and corrected the exaggerated accusations of black-on-white rape. Newspapers and journals also served to educate the public, which finally became less sympathetic to mob violence.
Despite the dramatic decline in lynching after the start of World War II, white rule remained as rigidly enforced as ever. In 1944, former Mississippi governor Bilbo preached of innate black inferiority when he told the state legislature: “There are some issues that we may differ upon, but on racial integrity, white supremacy, and love of the Southland we will stand together until we pass on to another world.” No group was more astute than the NAACP regarding the sad legacy of Separate but Equal and it was fighting hard for change. Thurgood Marshall filed lawsuits aimed at forcing states to provide equal opportunities for blacks and won important cases where higher education was concerned. By 1950, Marshall’s team changed its focus from mere equality within segregation to ending segregation itself, and the target was the public schools. Five cases worked their way up to the US Supreme Court, grouped together as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954, the justices ruled unanimously and declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Although hopeful blacks saw this repudiation of Plessy as the beginning of the end of legalized discrimination, for most white southerners, all the old fears of race-mixing came flooding back. Consequently, they were more defiant and energized than ever to maintain segregation at any cost. It took only two months after Brown for a group of fourteen men to meet in Indianola, Mississippi, to organize the first Citizens’ Council, whose goal was to pressure the Supreme Court to reverse its decision and intimidate any supporters of integration. By August 1956 there were over 80,000 members in sixty-five Mississippi counties. Segregation became the platform of all five gubernatorial candidates in Mississippi during the 1955 race. In this climate, Mississippi saw its first lynchings since 1951. On May 7, 1955, fifty-one-year-old Rev. George W. Lee, active in the NAACP and voter registration in Belzoni, was shot in the face late one night as he was driving home. Three months later World War I veteran Lamar Smith was shot dead on the courthouse steps in Brookhaven as he passed out voting literature. On August 28, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who had taken a train from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi, was brutally lynched for whistling at a white woman in a grocery store in the town of Money. Clearly, in the aftermath of Brown, racial tensions were on the rise and getting uglier. Rosa Parks’s stand on a Montgomery bus three months later thrust the civil rights movement into full force, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When the Confederate battle flag is recognized by any state today, it recalls the ugly days of slavery and Jim Crow. It is divisive. There are other ways to recognize southern pride and the people so affected can easily come to a consensus on how to do that. There is talk about placing the flag in a museum. This is not an issue of censorship because individuals will still be able to buy and wave the flag as they so choose. But governments have an obligation to unite, not divide. For the former Confederacy to fully repudiate its pre- and post-war past, the flag must come down immediately.