Before he shot nine black Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, 21-year-old Dylann Roof posed for photos holding a symbol of racial hatred. The same symbol that’s worn on t-shirts, wrapped around beer coozies, intertwined with American pop culture. Even if the flag is removed from South Carolina’s capitol, as leaders called for today, it’s not going away anytime soon.
[Update: Walmart is pulling all Confederate flag merchandise from its shelves.]
There are few American symbols which are so fraught with controversy—but also so ubiquitous. Drive through the South and you’ll see the distinctive design proudly painted on mailboxes and unabashedly framing license plates. Yet if you look back at photographs of lynch mobs or news footage of KKK rallies, the same flag is there, held up defiantly by white supremacists.
After last week’s shooting, questioning the appropriateness of publicly displaying the flag at all, with specific calls to remove the flag from South Carolina’s capitol. As a sign that conventional wisdom might be shifting, even Republican leaders—many of whose conservative followers feel the flag should be protected as part of their heritage—are speaking out against the Confederate flag’s symbolism.
Mitt Romney might have said it best this weekend:
And Obama agreed:
Today, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham joined Governor Nikki Haley to call for the flag’s removal.
But simply lowering the flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds, or removing it from public display completely, is a complicated issue. This is a symbol which many Americans see as overt racism and are therefore calling for it to be banned outright. But there is little historical precedent for banning flags in the US, and moreover, doing so would tread dangerously close to denying free speech.
The actual Confederate flag, the “Stars and Bars,” flies over Ft. Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina in 1861. Via Battle of Charleston
The Confederate flag which has become so iconicized today is actually not the official flag that represented the South when it seceded from the Union. The first iteration was called the “Stars and Bars,” which, to be honest, looked a heck of a lot like the first US flag: a circle of stars on a blue field, and three red and white stripes instead of 13. In fact, it was so similar to the US’s flag that it was confused with it on the battlefield, so a different design was needed.
The Confederate Battle Flag seen in an illustration of the Battle of Gettysburg
What’s known as the Confederate Battle Flag was created for the Army of Northern Virginia and became the popular choice for secessionists to display their pride, mostly because it was so visually different from the Union flag. This design, which is known throughout the South as the Dixie or Rebel flag—and what many people mistakenly refer to as the “Stars and Bars”—eventually made its way into the design of the official flag of the Confederacy. It actually went through several iterations, including one with an extra red column named “the Blood-Stained Banner.”
But because it was so closely associated with battle, this was the flag draped on the coffins and placed at the gravesites of the Southerners who fought in the Civil War. This is also the reason that its defenders argue that protecting the flag is critical for protecting Southern heritage: It pays respect to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost.
In the years after the Civil War ended, the Confederate flag didn’t disappear. In fact, within a few decades, it began to see a resurgence in the hands of groups which used the flag to demonstrate Southern opposition to various US political positions, or, increasingly, equal rights.
As the Civil Rights Movement began to build in the 1950s and 1960s, the flag was embraced by the Klu Klux Klan and other groups as they carried out violent acts against blacks. In the hands of hate groups, the flag quickly became associated with horrific and unspeakable crimes.
Dr. John Cobin of Greenville, South Carolina holds signs in support of displaying the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina in 2008. Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Yet a strong and vocal circle of advocates vehemently cling to the belief that the flag still properly honors Southern ancestry, no matter how else it was used. Opponents argue that slavery was what the Confederacy was built upon and therefore the flag will always be a symbol of oppression.
A Pew Research Center study conducted for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War found that reactions to the flag were also heavily delineated by race and political party: More blacks and Democrats had a negative reaction to the flag as compared to whites and Republicans.
You can see how this ideological battle illustrates the nuances of the flag as a symbol—for many, the flag’s meaning is all contextual. When seen as a part of history, it’s heritage, but in contemporary society, it’s racism. But does the Confederate flag still have a place—any place—in American culture?
In what’s perceived to be the most serious symbolic affront to the families of those murdered last week, the Confederate flag that flies at the South Carolina state house was not lowered to half-mast like the state and US flags after the shooting. In fact, the fight to keep the Confederate flag flying at the capitol is evidence of the strong polarity around the issue, and proves just how difficult it would be to fully eradicate the flag’s image from society.
Even as the other flags were placed at half-mast to honor those killed, the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol cannot be moved. Sean Rayford/Getty Images
In 2000, after years of campaigning by the NAACP and other groups, the South Carolina state senate ruled that the Confederate flag would be removed from atop the dome, where it had flown since 1961. But an odd concession was made to appease the flag’s supporters: A smaller flag was placed in the capitol’s lawn, next to a monument honoring Confederate soldiers. It is a location which in many ways is even more prominent.
Since the flag is protected as a historical landmark to prevent it from being tampered with—it’s behind a heavy iron gate—it requires a special order of the state’s general assembly to take it down. That’s why it couldn’t be lowered to honor those killed last week. And that’s why it’s very unlikely that it will ever be lowered permanently—even South Carolina’s Governor Haley said it was time to “move it,” not remove it.
Even if South Carolina removes the battle flag, there are other traces of the flag on state properties—in fact, elements of the Confederate flag’s design are still represented in the flags of seven Southern states. Mississippi’s flag includes the full iteration of the Confederate battle flag tucked up into the corner, while several others include the distinctive, prominent X.
Georgia’s flag in 1956 and the redesigned flag which was approved in 2004
Some states have already mobilized to remove the battle flag from their designs. Georgia actually introduced a battle flag element to its state flag’s design in 1956, which many believed was tacit support of segregation. Spurred by a negative reaction to the flag during the Summer Olympics in 1996, Georgia held a referendum in 2002 to redesign its flag and ended up with a flag that echoed the original “Stars and Bars” design of the Confederacy. Not all states have been as progressive, however: Mississippi held as similar referendum to change its flag, which was defeated. [Update: A new petition has been launched to change Mississippi’s flag design.]
In fact, there are other countries which have needed to change their flags to separate themselves from painful eras of racial history. South Africa, for example, debuted a new flag in 1994 after the end of apartheid. New Zealand is currently holding a referendum to change its flag design. There are many reasons for the redesign—one of which is that it looks far too similar to Australia’s—but race is part of it. The flag currently celebrates white imperialism by echoing British colonial imagery. A new design could be more inclusive, acknowledging the country’s many indigenous citizens.
The Confederate flag at a NASCAR event at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina, 2007. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Even if the flag comes down in South Carolina, there’s nothing stopping the Confederate flag from being flown by any American. An individual can fly any flag, as a symbol of ancestral pride or racial intolerance, thanks to the US’s freedom of speech.
That even includes the Nazi flag, another symbol of racial hatred. But while Americans are protected in their right to display a swastika, it has all but disappeared from German culture. Flying the flag was made illegal as part of the massive denazification process that began after World War II which included renaming streets, destroying paraphernalia, and dramatically imploding infrastructure. The Nazi flag does not fly in Berlin to honor German soldiers killed in battle. It has been relegated to museums and history books.
But if the flag is removed from South Carolina’s capitol, where is the line drawn that doesn’t impinge upon the First Amendment? The flag is found throughout the South, not just in people’s homes, but at battlegrounds and memorials and on plaques and statues, a century and a half later. Say states voluntarily stop using the flags on government properties, for example. That seems reasonable and necessary. But then some states would also need to expunge all references to the imagery in their official flags as well.
This also leads to a greater discussion about the Confederate flag’s presence in pop culture, which echoes Germany’s denazification censorship efforts. Would we see it pixelated in old Dukes of Hazzard reruns? Blurred out on Lynyrd Skynyrd album art?
In its original incantation, the Confederate flag may not have been as menacing in its intentions as the Third Reich. But like the Nazi flag, its meaning was subsumed by a small group of people who have used the imagery to perpetrate unspeakable racially- and ethnically-motivated crimes.
Shouldn’t this symbol that’s been irrevocably associated with segregation and bigotry and hate and murder be eradicated from culture as well, despite its history?
It would be monumentally difficult to erase 150 years of the flag’s indelible mark—but not impossible. Hopefully the flag’s iconography fades into rightful obscurity on its own. But making it outright illegal might also go against everything that the US stands for today.
[Update: I can’t believe I started the day writing about how Americans would never voluntarily eradicate these totems of racism, and by the end of the day, the country’s largest retailer went ahead and did it: Walmart is pulling all Confederate flag merchandise from its shelves. Nice work, humans.]
Top image: Chris Hondros / Getty Images