Slavery. Southern Pride. The Confederacy. White America. Racism.
The Confederate battle flag has a complicated history from being associated with slavery and protesting racial integration to Southern pride t-shirts and shot glasses. And the recent calls to remove the flag from public spaces show just how divisive the symbol really is.
But what does the flag actually represent and can or has this symbol’s meaning change over time?
It depends who you ask.
Bloody, war-torn history
The flag first made its debut in the Civil War as part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and was primarily in the public eye after the Southern Confederacy lost the war against the Northern Union states.
Originally known as the Confederate Battle Flag or Rebel Flag, most Americans refer to the flag as the Confederate Flag even though it’s not entirely accurate. The flag made a resurgence in modern-times starting as early as the 1940s, said John Coski, a historian at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond.
Coski, who spent 28 years studying the flag’s history, even writing a book on his research titled “The Confederate Battle Flag,” said the flag represents different things to different people: The Confederate solider, the Confederate nation, the South — more specifically the White South — the rebels and the rebellion.
But there can be a dark, redneck side, too, and from the commercial standpoint, a “kitschy” side, he added.
In the 1940s, it was used by the military but became a national fad in the 1950s, appearing on t-shirts and keychains.
“It was mostly youth driven as most fads are,” Coski said.
Southern Dixiecrats used the Rebel flag to protest against racial integration, he added.
Countless publications like Life Magazine and even the New York Times questioned the flag’s reappearance in society and if the gesture of white supremacy was against President Harry S. Truman.
The people who complained and wanted the flag limited in public eye the most were African Americans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but for different reasons.
The Daughters felt people were misusing the flag considering it a desecration while African Americans wanted the country to be unified during the Cold War, noting the Confederacy tried to split the union.
“It was one of the most interesting things I found and I was not expecting to find that,” he said of the discovery.
During Civil Rights movement, the African American community became very aware of the flag’s dark side, Coski said.
But growing up it was not uncommon for Coski to see the flags in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s in popular culture from Warner Bros. and Southern rock bands to roadside stops like Stuckey’s.
“So for people my age, it’s a familiar part of popular culture,” the 61-year-old said.
So does the flag have a place in 2020 America and is it unacceptable in today’s society?
“It’s pretty clear that the Confederate flag has been fading from the landscape,” Coski said. “That’s been eroding because of active movements to remove the flags from public property.”
The historian said since the beginning the flag has been associated with the Confederacy and therefore, an association with slavery.
“It’s not their imagination,” he said. “It was real, it was born out of a nation that was meant to perpetuate slavery.”
“For all people who see it as a Southern symbol…they have to understand that it has almost meant since the beginning as the defense of slavery,” he added.
Regardless, Coski wants people to understand the flag has multiple meanings and if you want to understand the “big kind of picture,” you have to have an open mind and be generous to other people.
“There’s a tendency of people to think the worst of each other,” he said. “We tend to judge people based on one perception…it’s a divisive symbol as one as it is ––it doesn’t have to be as divisive as it was today.”
So what is the best solution? Where does the flag actually belong?
Out of the public eye, Coski said.
Coski’s book suggests people who truly believe the flag means heritage, a memorial to Confederate solider or Civil War history, the “legitimate places” for it are inside museums, history books, cemeteries or grave sites.
“If you really believe it means memory of soldiers and history, what do the little souvenirs have to do with memory,” he asked. “Is this a legitimate expression of symbolism and memory? I’ve challenged people on that and to kind of bring people together if we can come to an agreement on what is a good use and a bad use of the Confederate flag…shouldn’t it be used an ubiquitously historical?”
He said he feels by reducing the flag’s footprint, showing it in the context of the Civil War, people would have an easier time considering what the flag once was.
“The less you see it, the easier it will be to see it as a symbol as its supporters and its backers say what it’s supposed to be,” he said. “To me it’s a win-win. I would think, it’s in everyone’s best interest, the more limited it is the better.”
But not everyone shares the same opinion about the flag’s significance.
“For many African Americans, the flag’s history and what it stands for, the first thing that comes to mind is slavery,” said York-Williamsburg-James City NAACP President Brian Smalls.
He said the flag has a “very sordid” and “very racist history” reappearing in the middle of the 1900s as a sign of segregation.
Smalls said many people attributed it to the Southern Dixiecrats and the flag was almost taunted as Black people need to be reminded of their place.
WYDaily reached out to two family-run businesses in the Historic Triangle who sell Confederate flag merchandise to find out why the store sells the flag and what the flag means to them.
One store told WYDaily they had stopped selling Confederate flag merchandise and declined further comment.
The second business also declined to comment, but the store’s website still shows it still sells the merchandise.
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