Yesterday a reader of this blog asked 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. I’ve made a few minor edits to the original comment for clarity’s sake. Some of the points I make will be familiar to regular readers, but they’re worth repeating again. As always, please contribute your voice to the discussion in the comments section if you feel so inclined.
Your statement[s] 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.
With regards to historians’ claims 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 wave 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. 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 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 at the time 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). Context matters.
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 wearing 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. If the onion’s core layer went away every time a new layer was added, it would cease to exist as such and become something else entirely. 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, one power of free expression is that it allows you to criticize views you disagree with. That point also needs to be acknowledged by those who expect to wave such a charged symbol without controversy or criticism. Ultimately, however, being considerate of how others feel about the flag is something we should all take seriously regardless of where we stand on this issue.