The Confederate Flag Symbolizes White Supremacy — and It Always Has
Like other vestiges of the Confederacy, the flag outlived the Civil War. At first, white Southerners mostly displayed it at Civil War cemeteries and at memorials and veterans’ reunions. That use of the flag is the crux of the “heritage, not hate” argument: that the Confederate flag is simply about honoring the South’s past, its dead, and its culture. As a white woman who still flies the flag in a historically black South Carolina neighborhood put it, it’s about “family history.”
But the flag’s meaning was never really innocuous. “Family history” only became a plausible rationale because of a devil’s bargain. In the interest of reuniting white Americans, the narrative around the Civil War changed in its aftermath. And the new story was more flattering to the South.
As historian David Blight has argued, the invented memory brought together white Northerners and Southerners to emphasize the valor, courage, and sacrifice of soldiers on both sides. Slavery was sidelined as the war’s primary cause in favor of the vaguer term “state’s rights.” (The right to own slaves.) The war became a national tragedy, not a just cause. Reconstruction was not a failed attempt at racial equality, but a dangerous mistake.
The “heritage, not hate” argument is predicated on this national amnesia. And that amnesia came at the expense of black Americans.
The flag no longer represented just a 19th-century battle to preserve white supremacy, but a 20th-century one as well.
The KKK waved the Confederate flag. So did the Citizens’ Councils, white supremacist groups of prominent and successful people who opposed integration. White mobs at the University of Alabama carried Confederate flags when they threw rocks at Autherine Lucy, the university’s first black student, before the university decided to expel her rather than protect her. Mobs fighting to protect segregated schools wore Confederate flags in Little Rock and New Orleans and Austin and Birmingham.