It’s time to end the myth that the Confederate flag is anything other than a symbol of racism.
By birth, choice and the grace of God, I am a Southerner.
I grew up in Alabama and have spent most of my life in Tennessee. In other words, I’ve lived all my life way down yonder in the land of cotton. My love of the South is about home, family and place. It’s about language and literature. It’s about football. It’s about the creativity and cadence found in the way people paint pictures when they recount even the simplest of stories. It’s about food and the aroma of the places where food is prepared. It’s about music. It’s about so many of the people I love. It’s about those things, and so much more.
But my love of the South has nothing to do with the Confederate flag and the racism it so thoroughly symbolizes.
In the wake of the Charleston Church killings on Wednesday night, the state of South Carolina should stop flying the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state capitol.
But let that be just the start. Get rid of the symbol from any state flag or any crest or any shield from any state. And now that the Supreme Court has ruled that states can deny Confederate flags from being on vanity license plates, those states that have them, starting with Tennessee, should get rid of them as soon as possible.
I am NOT suggesting the purging of history. I am advocating the purging of the glorification of a mythological history that never existed.
What’s the deal with the Confederate flag anyway? To my friends who didn’t grow up in the south, the idea that a state could be flying a Confederate flag on the grounds of its state capitol in 2015 is beyond comprehension. To be honest, I grew up here, and it took me a long time to figure it out.
So here’s a simple version:
As with people defeated in war throughout history and around the world, the survivors — the families of those who died or lost everything short of life in a war — began to revise the history of the Civil War immediately after Appomattox.
Doing so provided their personal loss to have some meaning. No one wants to feel their loved ones died in vain or for a cause that is wrong.
Birth of the Lost Cause Religion
Historians have given the name The Lost Cause to this revisionist history of the Civil War. Over time, belief in the authenticity of the Lost Cause version of the Civil War became so pervasive that it started being called, Lost Cause Religion. (See: Charles Regan Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920.)
According to the Lost Cause version of the Civil War, the Confederacy fought the war to defend the refined South from heathen northern aggressors.
Lost Cause believers say the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and they’ve collected a set of fragmented facts to prove to themselves that myth. They view the military leaders of the South as being noble and exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry. They think the South was defeated by the Union armies through numerical and industrial force that overwhelmed the South’s superior military skill and courage.
The most cherished symbol to adherents of the lost cause religion is the Confederate flag. (Other icons of the Lost Cause include Gone With the Wind and Robert E. Lee.)
The Confederate flag is not a symbol of the Civil War. It is a symbol of the Lost Cause Religion and racism.
(When I say Confederate flag, I mean the one that we commonly recognize today as the Confederate flag, even though it was never declared a national flag of the South during the Civil War, itself.)
Blind belief in the Lost Cause version of Civil War history is so ingrained in the narrative of white Southerners, that even a candidate for President of the United States, Lindsey Graham, actually told CNN on the day after the Charleston church killings that the Confederate flag should fly on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol because “(the Confederate flag is) just a part of who we are.”
How & when the Lost Cause believers sacrificed their version of the meaning of the Confederate flag
I’ve never understood why groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans can hold the Confederate flag to such high esteem but have chosen not to defend it during the past 150 years from groups that hijacked it for uses other than what I thought the SCV claims it’s all about.
If, say, a group started using the Nike logo as a symbol for racism, do you think Nike would stand by?
But groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans stood by, choosing not to defend their symbol, when racist groups have hijacked the flag and used it as a symbol for hatred and bigotry.
If Nike stood by when their symbols are hijacked, they would lose their legal rights to those symbols and, in a term used by marketers, lose control of their brand voice. In other words, if you want to say the flag is not a racist symbol yet stand by while others use it as one, then you’ve lost your right to define its meaning.
And that’s exactly what the SCV and other Lost Cause organizations did after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education. Where was the SCV when, in 1956, in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the Georgia legislature voted to add the Confederate flag to their state flag. The Sons of the Confederate Veterans did not defend their flag from being misinterpreted when the Governor of Georgia who signed the flag bill into law said, “There will be no mixing of the races in the public schools and college classrooms of Georgia anywhere or at any time as long as I am governor.” (via) When they didn’t condem the use of the flag by racists in 1956, the SCV established the actual meaning (both overt and covert) of the flag.
The Confederate flags isn’t a part of me
So now you know. The Lindsey Graham “it’s just a part of who we are” is pure Lost Cause Religion, bless his heart.
But the time for choosing to accept mythology over reality is over. The Confederate flag is a racist symbol. Accept it. Stop using it if you don’t want to be identified as a racist.
Take Down the Confederate Flag
If anything good can come out of the tragic Charleston shootings (and in reality, nothing good can justify the deaths) it should be the removal of Confederate flags from state property other than museums.
It’s time to quit pretending that being Southern has something to do with the Confederate flag.
It’s time to end the notion that the Confederate flag has anything to do with the South other than perpetuating a myth and embracing a hateful symbol of racism.
Note: I’ve turned off comments on this post. The Internet is filled with places where people can defend their points of view on the layered meaning of the Confederate flag. This isn’t one of them.