Confederates At the Bridge

This past Saturday I attended a very nice wedding in Southern Illinois. The drive to the ceremony was like any other adventure through the Land of Lincoln (boring!), but a couple attractions along Interstates 70 and 64 caught my attention and prompt me to write yet another (and hopefully the last one for a while) post on Confederate iconography in American society today.

I started my drive in St. Charles county, Missouri, and within minutes of getting onto Interstate 70 I noticed a demonstration on a bridge above the highway with roughly fifteen men waving just about every Confederate flag that existed during the Civil War, from the “Stars and Bars” to the Battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and everything in between. The purpose of this demonstration was unclear; there were no signs identifying the group or a message stating their purpose. For this reason it’s hard to speculate this group’s motivations, but I have traveled on this road for nearly my entire life and have never seen such a demonstration before. You can’t help but wonder if the vocal backlash against Confederate iconography in the wake of the Charleston Massacre in June has something to do with it.

I continued my drive and eventually crossed over into Illinois on Interstate 64. As I neared Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County I observed yet another demonstration that included the waving of a Confederate flag! This time the group had a number of signs explicitly stating their message:

“IMPEACH OBAMA!”

“ISLAM IS NOT A REAL RELIGION!”

This time there were two flags being waved. One was an American flag. The other was a Confederate flag conveniently displayed right next to the Obama sign.

Waving an American flag makes sense in this context, even if you disagree with the message. Historically all sorts of political groups from the Second Ku Klux Klan to the Communist Party USA have used the American flag to symbolize their beliefs and give them validity. The fact that libertarians, conservatives, liberals, socialists, and communists find meaning in the American flag is a testament to the fluidity (and ambiguity) of our nation’s fundamental principles. By flying the red, white, and blue, the demonstrators at this bridge wished to appropriate the American flag’s symbolism to reflect their own values and ideological views. They wanted to show drivers that they are true American Patriots who care deeply about the state of their nation, which they believe is now imperiled because of the President.

But why fly a Confederate flag alongside the American flag and a sign calling for Obama’s impeachment? Why not fly just the American flag or, if necessary, a “Don’t Tread on Me” Sign? Would these demonstrators whip out a Confederate flag if they were protesting the actions of Presidents Reagan, Bush, or Clinton? These people believe they are losing their freedoms, and in a way the Confederate flag’s use has always symbolized the perceived loss of freedom. But given the Confederate flag’s long history as a symbol of opposition to Civil Rights legislation and racial equality, one can easily conclude that the flag was also there because the demonstrators’ dislike for our nation’s first black President stems at least in part from their racism. There is also something to be said about their mistaken belief that he is a practicing Muslim, but that’s a different topic for another day.

In the wake of the Charleston Massacre the economist Thomas Sowell was quick to warn against “trying to make up for the past with present-day benefits” from the welfare state. He expressed a desire to see the country repudiate racism, find a path towards national racial reconciliation, and come to terms with the results of the Civil War. Sowell, however, did not direct this message to the wavers of Confederate flags. He instead directed it to who he describes as “professional race hustlers” like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the Black Lives Matter Movement (which, ironically, has had a very limited public association with either Sharpton or Jackson). In Sowell’s rendering these hustlers are bent on perpetuating a new civil war within the country and destroying its history by renaming every memorial and landmark that is scared in our collective memory. And in a strange leap of logic, he concludes that the result of a victorious Black Lives Matter movement “could ultimately accomplish [Dylann Roof’s] dream of racial polarization and violence.”

There is certainly room for debate about the tactics and methods of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Veteran Civil Rights Activists from the 1960s don’t even agree about the effectiveness of the movement’s approach so far. And Sowell’s desire for national reconciliation and racial healing is a sentiment I share. But his hyperbolic warnings to the “race hustlers” lose their substance when white modern-day Confederates without an ounce of reconciliation in their souls go to interstate bridges on Saturday mornings to wave the symbols of a failed government whose cornerstone foundation was based on white supremacy. Are the people peacefully demonstrating at Black Lives Matter protests the actual race hustlers bent on perpetuating a state of war, or is it the people flying the Confederate flag under the ambiguous cloak of “heritage” who are the actual race hustlers still bent on fighting the Civil War?

It should go without saying that everyone has the right to freely express themselves and wave as many Confederate flags as they want at their homes or at bridges on top of busy interstates. Likewise, I have had my own criticisms of President Obama and don’t approach this discussion as an apologetic defender of his administration. It would be nice, however, if the people so proudly waving this flag could be a little more self-reflective about the history of their beloved symbol and its divisive nature. I wish people would care about the betterment of their communities and a more just society for all Americans as much as they care about their Confederate flags.

Cheers

Advertisements

12 responses

  1. (Begin sarcasm font) Maybe they were descendants of some of the three dozen or so residents of Williamson County who crossed the Ohio and joined a Tennessee regiment to fight for the Confederacy? (End sarcasm font)

    1. That’s actually the first thing I thought of when I saw those demonstrators waving that sign calling for Obama’s impeachment 🙂

  2. “in a way the Confederate flag’s use has always symbolized the perceived loss of freedom”

    Your statement caught my attention because I’ve seen other historians arguing that there is only one correct and appropriate interpretation that can be applied to the Confederate Flag which is that all who display it are white supremacist racists. No exceptions, no contextual interpretation, and no questions asked to clear up the meaning of the usage. Their justification of their thought being that the only cause of the Civil War was slavery due to white supremacy.

    I would like to pick your brain regarding their thoughts. Also, could you expand on your statement regarding the flag’s use symbolizing the perceived loss of freedom.

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on an important discussion. I will try to give you a clear and concise answer to your questions. It won’t be easy!

      With regards to the claims of historians about the flag I would respond that there are a lot of historians out there, and it’s hard to make such a simplistic conclusion about their views. There will undoubtedly be a range of perspectives among scholars about the meaning of the Confederate flag and the intentions of those who waive it. Regarding scholars who are specially trained in 19th and 20th century U.S. history I think it’s unfair to suggest that they all believe the flag has only one meaning and that those who display it are all white supremacists, end of story. Take, for example, the historian Craig A. Warren’s recent book on the Rebel Yell, which tries to argue that Billy Idol’s famous song “Rebel Yell” (which he often played on a guitar with the Confederate flag on it) had nothing to do with the Rebel Yell of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. That interpretation is not necessarily accepted by all historians, but it shows that historians can and do think quite a bit about the context in which these symbols are operating (see here for more: https://civilwarpop.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/entry-18-the-plastic-punk-goes-confederate/). The conversation historians are having about the flag is more nuanced and complex than how it’s been portrayed in popular media.

      Cultural historians analyzing the historical role of Confederate iconography in American society have documented plenty of times when the Confederate flag was appropriated for uses in pop culture. Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts with Confederate flags on stage, Billy Idol’s aforementioned Confederate flag guitar, the General Lee in Dukes of Hazzard, and Ole Miss football games where fans flew Rebel flags are all examples of using the flag as a reappropriated cultural artifact. Did everyone who participated in these activities and wave a Confederate flag hold white supremacists views? I doubt it. The flag represented something different to these people.

      The problem, however, is that the flag was simultaneously used and proudly waved as a political symbol to support pretty hateful governmental policies towards people of color throughout the 20th century. In this regard there is indeed a clear consensus among historians that white supremacists who supported Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan waved the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance and rebellion against the Civil Rights Movement and the federal government more broadly. This is not a controversial point and any rational person can do a brief google search and find images of people waving Confederate flags within this context during the CRM. Additionally, many of these same people embraced the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which downplayed the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War and argued that African American freedpeople were unfit for citizenship, voting rights, or political and social equality with white people in the years after the war. In this sense many of the people who used the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights movement were doing it precisely because they had looked at their history books (many of which were written by historians who accepted the basic premises of the Lost Cause) and had used their understanding of history to inform their opposition to the changes occurring in American society during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

      This is why I tend to think that Confederate flag waving–especially within a political context–is reflective of individual and group perceptions that they are being told what to do by an oppressive government and that they are losing their freedoms and way of life. President Truman desegregates the military and supports anti-lynching bills in the late 1940s, thousands of activists in Mississippi react by protesting and waving Confederate flags. Nine black children attempt to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they are greeted by adults waving Confederate flags around the campus. President Obama is our nation’s first black president and those opposed to his administration create signs that call for his impeachment but then feel the need to place those signs right next to a Confederate flag for added effect. Each of these events are part of a larger historical narrative of the Confederate flag’s use as a political symbol in support of white supremacy. The flag’s use for these purposes is a historical fact and we cannot escape that history, much as it might trouble some people who embrace the flag today.

      So where does that leave us?

      I think the historian Yoni Appelbaum is correct when he argues that the Confederate flag has a wide range of meanings in pop culture but that within a political context it has consistently represented the principles of white supremacy (although I acknowledge that the line between the two is sometimes blurry. See Appelbaum’s article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/why-is-the-flag-still-there/396431/).

      Cultural symbols are flexible enough to have new meanings added to them over time, some of which might divert far from their original purpose (Kanye West’s waving of the Confederate flag a few years ago is a noteworthy example). But those new meanings are like adding new layers to an onion – the old layers don’t go away because a new layer was added. The onion remains an onion because its core still remains. Therefore the messy history of the Confederacy and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t go away because somebody waving the flag today was ignorant of that history or didn’t intend for that message to be sent to others. History is there whether or not you choose to acknowledge it. Those who choose to wave the Confederate flag today are free to do so if they want, but they must come to terms with our nation’s history and understand that there are potential consequences for waving it, one consequence being that many Americans today find it offensive. Free expression, regardless of context, doesn’t fully shield you from facing consequences for your beliefs. Indeed, free expression allows you to criticize views you disagree with. That point also needs to be acknowledged. Being considerate of how others feel about the flag is something we should all take seriously regardless of where we stand on this issue.

      This comment went longer than I expected, but hopefully it all makes sense. Feel free to respond if you want to continue the conversation, and thanks again for commenting.

      1. Thank You for your response. That was a great explanation and the best one I have heard so far which is very appreciated! You helped clear a lot of things up for me.

        1. Thanks, Stephanie! I appreciate it.

  3. Nice answer, Nick. For more on this discussion you might want to visit https://historicstruggle.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/displaying-and-teaching-the-confederate-flag-in-the-classroom-part-1/

    It’s like a black hole dealing with these people.

    1. Thanks for linking to this conversation on Rob’s blog. I like the way he approached this discussion in his classroom.

      1. Nick, thanks for the follow and the nice words about my post. I just now came across your blog and I’ll be sure to follow it. The person Stephanie referred to was me…even though I never stated or suggested what she says “other historians” have said. Unfortunate comments to say the least.

        1. Thanks, Rob. I’ve no doubt your views are more thoughtful and nuanced than was suggested if you’re really the “other historians” guy. Look forward to reading more on your site and continuing these conversations.

      2. Nick,
        I will verify that Rob is the other historian guy who teaches high school history.

  4. […] some good questions about the malleability of cultural symbols in response to my last essay on two recent confederate flag demonstrations in the St. Louis area. My response ended up being pretty long and I want to share it again as its own individual post. […]

What do you think? Leave a comment here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: