What news media and “Lost Cause” flag bearers call the “Confederate” flag is a mid-20th century creation based on the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The neo-Confederate flag bandied about today is the chosen symbol of segregationists, White supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as well as many Donald Trump devotees. Its mid-20th century design is based on a battle flag used by the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), “an army raised to kill in defense of slavery.”
That’s not what I learned while growing up in southwest Georgia in the second half of the 20th century. The neo-Confederate flag was plastered across the back of pickup trucks punctuated with prominent rifle racks. It showed up at high school sporting events. It was one of the many myths related to the Lost Cause that I absorbed as “truth” and “good.”
Yes I knew that South Carolina led southern state secession from the Union in 1860. That was pridefully taught history. What I did not know: in the mid-1860s, decommissioned Confederate soldiers in Tennessee founded the KKK. That the KKK rose into prominence in the early 20th century as part of the “anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-Black” movement.
Nor did I learn that in 1948 South Carolina led southern states as they seceded from the Democratic party.
The newly-formed segregationist States Rights Party (also known as the Dixiecrats) nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Their rallying cry (“states rights”) — borrowed from the 1860s — was a dog whistle for “the purposeful denial of fundamental human and civil rights for African Americans.” In a shorter, truthful phrase: White supremacy.
Modern history rarely made it into classroom discussions. Even had that been the case, I doubt Dixiecrats would have made the grade. What did make it into my consciousness: an unquestioning reverence for “states’ rights.”
Dixiecrats brought the 20th century version of one of the battle flags of the ANV into national consciousness along with their opposition to civil rights and fondness for Jim Crow laws, a racial caste system. In 1948, Thurmond would carry South Carolina as well as Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in the presidential election won by President Harry Truman (Electoral College votes, 303–189–39).
Lest you doubt that White supremacy was the real motivation for this second secession, in 1947 Truman had called for the federal government to protect the civil rights of all Americans in a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Truman was the first president to address the NAACP, which had been formed in 1909.
I should like to talk to you briefly about civil rights and human freedom. It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country’s efforts to guarantee a freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights.
And when I say all Americans — I mean all Americans.
There were three official flags of the Confederate States of America.
The Confederate States of America had no single unifying symbol.
Today’s neo-Confederate flag has served as a symbol of White supremacy about 15 times longer than the Confederacy actually existed and about 37 times longer than its longest-lived flag (counting from 1948). Moreover, it is the resurrection and redefinition of a flag of war, not the symbol of a “country.” Confederate leaders rejected it as the official flag of the Confederacy.
You’ve probably not seen these flags, unless you’re a student of late 19th century history.
The Stars and Bars (1861) initially featured seven stars, representing the first seven states to secede (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas). Later versions had nine, eleven, and thirteen stars. Because it was visually similar to the United States flag, it led to confusion on the battlefield.
Confederate politician William Porcher Miles designed the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) to eliminate battlefield confusion. Leaders rejected the battle flag as the official flag of the Confederacy but incorporated its design into the two subsequent official flags.
The battle flag was square, and featured the St. Andrews cross. It would eventually carry 13 white stars representing the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Kentucky and Missouri.
After the south surrendered, and the myth (or cult) of the “Lost Cause” permeated southern culture, the ANV battle flag became the logo of United Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Many former confederate states incorporated the design into their state flags in the mid-20th century, as part of the rise of modern White supremacy and the south’s anti-civil rights stance.
The neo-Confederate flag of the 20th century took the battle flag of the ANV as its inspiration.
A battle flag is a military flag used to “indicate the rallying point of an army.” The neo-Confederate flag, like its antecedents, is used to rally supporters of White supremacy. The 20th century neo-Confederate flag made popular by segregationists, the KKK and southern state legislatures (as well as Hollywood with the Dukes of Hazzard) is horizontal rather than square like the battle flag that is its inspiration.
Mississippi put the battle flag on its state flag 29 years after losing the civil war. In 1956, Georgia incorporated the battle flag into its state flag after the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
The Confederate flag’s appearance at Trump rallies in 2016, sometimes emblazoned with his name, cemented its link to his “Make America Great Again” brand of patriotism, which appealed to many disaffected white people.
Barbara Fields, Columbia University, noted that the neo-Confederate flag “was weaponized in the era of Jim Crow [and] the civil rights era” before taking center stage in Charlottesville as a modern symbol of White supremacy.
In July 2020, Trump tweeted that “Bubba Wallace, Nascar’s only Black full-time driver, should apologize after a noose was found in his garage.” Trump also claimed that Nascar’s TV ratings had dropped “because it banned the Confederate flag at its tracks.”
Whether we’re talking about the battle flag of the ANV or the neo-Confederate flag of the 21st century, it is impossible to escape not only the symbolism of hate but also the symbolism of death.
Call it what it is: the Flag of White Supremacy.
It’s past time for both to be buried.
Featured photo by Anthony Crider, March for Criminal Justice Reform, Alamance, North Carolina, Nov 2020. Flickr CC license; image cropped.
Related Cultural touchstones and social warts: a southern daughter examines her past, 23 July 2015