A few thoughts on the Confederate flag and the changing meaning of symbols


From Ku Klux Klan to protest removal of Confederate flag on July 18 at Statehouse in today’s Charleston Post & Courier:

The Ku Klux Klan has been approved to hold a protest rally at the Statehouse next month against removing the Confederate battle flag, with the group calling accused mass murderer Dylann Roof a “young warrior.” […]

Robert Jones, grand dragon for the group, said on Monday that the Klan is a civil rights organization dedicated to white culture and history as symbolized by the rebel banner.

During a phone interview, Jones gave words of support for Roof, saying he erred in going after black people while they worshipped. On the Klan group’s telephone answering machine is a recorded message that refers to Roof as a warrior. […]

“He was heading in the right direction; wrong target,” Jones said. “He should have actually aimed at the African-American gang-bangers, the ones who are selling the drugs to white youth, the ones who are robbing and raping every chance they get.”

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In the early 1970s, my family went to Florida for vacation. Somewhere along the way to the beach, we stopped to buy beach towels. My sister ended up with a Disney-themed one (Bambi maybe?), but I chose one with the “Confederate flag.” (The image that is being called the “Confederate flag” in the current debates was the Second Confederate Navy Jack, according to this historical background at Snopes.com, but I’m going to keep using the common “Confederate flag.”)

I loved that towel. Why? I really don’t know, but the boldness of the design and colors probably impressed me, and I presumably thought that the symbol represented something that I was — or something I should aspire to.

I was maybe 8 years old at the time, so I knew nothing of the very recent history of the symbol — its addition in 1956 to the Georgia state flag, the hanging of the flag over the South Carolina capitol in 1962, etc. The Confederate flag has been a part of Mississippi’s state flag since the 19th century, but the symbol enjoyed fresh popularity during the civil rights movement and the debates about integration, interracial marriage, school bussing, and so forth and so on.

In a frank interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, S.C. Republican State Senator Doug Brannon put it pretty bluntly: ” … that flag didn’t get placed on the capitol grounds until 1962. And it got placed on the capitol dome in response to desegregation, so, yeah, it’s 150 years after the end of the war, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a flag that got placed on the capitol dome by a bunch of white guys who were mad about desegregation.”

I didn’t know that as I bought and used that towel, but did my parents? I doubt it. They read two newspapers every day and watched about an hour of TV news, but Americans weren’t saturated by media the way we are today.

I grew up in Kentucky. I had ancestors — not all that many generations back — who fought for both the Union and the Confederate armies. One ancestor ended up in a prison camp in Delaware until some time after the war, if I recall the details correctly from the old family letters. But I don’t think that family history had anything to do with my view of the Confederate flag when I was a child — or maybe it did.

And that’s the trick with symbols: their meanings change.

Of course, for many Americans, the Confederate flag never symbolized anything positive. And that alone could arguably be reason enough to remove the banner from government property.

Flags in museums might be consigned to history, but publicly displayed flags exist in the present tense. Flags are symbols of who we are today. We fly them at celebrations; we fight — and die — under them. If we’ve got a symbol up there above us that does not somehow represent all of us, then those with the most power — the ones with the clout to control the symbolism — might appear (or might be) more interested in expressing their dominance than in pursuing the greater good.

By the way, if you want to start the whole “Southern heritage” defense of the flag, or if you want to go off on a tangent about how the Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery, you might want to read the words of the man (a Savannahian, no less) who created the symbol and read Georgia’s declaration of secession, which begins with these two lines:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

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I’ve always been interested in the fringes of things. I write pretty staid columns in the newspaper, so some of you might be surprised to know how much I’ve followed stories related to cryptozoology, UFO sightings, political radicalism, religious fundamentalism — a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated things that are about the extremes of existence.

By the time Georgia was embroiled in a debate about the Confederate symbol on the state flag early in the 21st century, it was obvious that the Confederate flag was being appropriated more and more by groups on the fringes — by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and others with similar beliefs. I was appalled in the early 2000s when — at a time that local soldiers were fighting for their country — an organization marched in Savannah’s Veteran’s Day parade under the old state flag with the Confederate symbol still on it rather than the new state flag. But that was still over a decade ago, when it would have been much easier to ignore the mounting evidence of increasingly sinister appropriation.

Dylann Roof certainly attached real meaning to flags. Before his website was taken offline, I downloaded all the photos posted there — they include the ones widely seen in the media of his display of the Confederate flag, but also include images of him burning and spitting upon the American flag. He also displayed the white supremacist symbol 1488, in addition to other symbols, and even called his website The Last Rhodesian.

So no surprise here that members of the KKK, which represents a tiny percentage of people who live on the political fringe, are about to become the most vocal supporters of the public, government-sponsored display of the Confederate flag. Obviously, it’s long past time to take that thing down. Maybe the KKK protest will make some remaining defenders of the flag realize just how much their symbol has been taken from them.

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But what about other debates regarding public displays that reference the Confederacy?

These are much trickier, in my opinion. I understand why some people would want to move quickly to remove some symbols, but I think a lot of caution is in order.

Should a statue of Jefferson Davis be moved from the rotunda of the Kentucky Capitol to make room for honoring another prominent Kentuckian? What about the statue of John Hunt Morgan in front of the old courthouse in Lexington, Kentucky? What about the statue of Robert E. Lee in the center of Lee Circle in New Orleans?

Those three examples came up in family discussions over the weekend, but I could go on and on and on.

Statues and other monuments are not the same as flags, which, as I argue above, represent who we are now. I think we all know that statues are not quite in the same category. We all know that Americans have erected statues in honor of people who would never be similarly honored today. By contemporary standards, Savannah would never have destroyed Tomo-Chi-Chi’s grave and erected the Gordon monument in Wright Square, but does that mean we should undo it?

One of the more interesting contemporary examples of the removal of a statue is the case of the Joe Paterno memorial at Penn State, which was taken down about six months after his death. I think it was the right move, given that Paterno apparently knew crucial information about Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children, but Pennsylvanians overwhelming favor putting the statue back up.

Stan Deaton with the Georgia Historical Society has some provocative ruminations on monuments in the 2014 post A Monumental Mistake on his blog Off the Deaton Path. Deaton argues against a proposed bill that would make it illegal to move state-owned monuments in Georgia — here’s a short bit of it:

The idea that the state can virtually chain all of the people of Georgia in perpetuity to a narrow slanted interpretation of the past is a ridiculous notion, and one quite frankly that should be rejected by all Georgians as being one of ideological correctness run amok. Professional historians constantly re-evaluate people and events in the past as new evidence comes to light, just as doctors re-evaluate treatment for diseases based on new medical research, and we shouldn’t be opposed to changing our minds about what we think about something or someone. Revising our views about the past isn’t “political correctness,” it’s sounds and professional scholarship.

I also quote Deaton in a post calling for the renaming of the Talmadge Bridge here in Savannah, but it’s worth noting that Savannahians have essentially quit using the bridge’s official name. I can’t find the official name anywhere on the website for the Savannah River Bridge Run, for example.

I think the public rejection of the official name of the bridge provides clear evidence that there is a broad consensus for renaming it. That doesn’t mean, however, that Savannahians are ready to uproot monuments in the squares.

I do hope that these conversations ultimately bring more attention to sites and monuments that are neglected in the general Savannah narrative. How many local residents and Savannah visitors have seen the wonderful carvings, including the busts of all the presidents, by Ulysses Davis at the Beach Institute? How many have seen the slave burials at Laurel Grove South Cemetery?

Not enough, that’s for sure.

4 comments for “A few thoughts on the Confederate flag and the changing meaning of symbols

  1. Sandy Traub
    June 30, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Maybe the shorthand of communications is partly to blame. Written letters express(ed) congenial welcome and closings, where communications like texting and Twitter force brevity, and leave so much to be assumed, complying with shortened attention spans. Then, too, perhaps the anonymous Talmadge Bridge is a simple evidence of Savannah’s waffling story. For example, Charleston calls their event “Cooper River Bridge Run”. At least the legitimate river name remains. Doesn’t it seem that manners are an undercurrent of conversations lately, overall? The forgiving manners from the harmed people of Charleston, vs. the rioting people of Baltimore. Queen Elizabeth reminded her celebrity guest to mind his manners. In the south a genteel hostess would go to great lengths to prevent annoying her house guest. Could that be a trail to explore during the discussions that shake out who we are in the south today and for the future. We stand on shoulders of the past, not selective history. The knee jerk effect could wipe out select history in the name of progress that future generations will long for. Think: old city market, the West Broad Street rail station. A bit of careful study, wise decisions, and mannerly encouragement might cause some good ole ripple effects across America? Just a few thoughts.

    • June 30, 2015 at 9:38 pm

      I’m all in favor of both civility and caution, but the use of the Confederate flag by blatantly racist organizations predates the most modern forms of communication. Groups like the one that primarily inspired the Charleston shooter aren’t interested in civil, fact-based discourse. Given the decades of debate about removing the flag and the fact that conservative southern politicians are leading the way, I wouldn’t call that a knee-jerk reaction.

      Other efforts could become knee-jerk reactions, however, and I would caution against those, just as I repeatedly wrote about Savannah’s recent demolition of two important sites along MLK: the historic cottages of Meldrim Row and the old pharmacy.

  2. RFW ALLSTON
    June 30, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
    ― George Orwell, 1984

    • June 30, 2015 at 8:36 pm

      I’m not sure of your intent in posting this, but you should click on through to Stan Deaton’s post above. We are always reevaluating history; every generation changes the symbols that represent them and change the names of various sites, roads, streets, buildings, etc. We don’t live in a static society. No one I know is trying to destroy any of that history — it’s all part of the knowledge that we accumulate. As Deaton notes in that post, if we followed a policy of immutability, all the streets in Savannah would still have their colonial names — but at least we’d still have Tomo-Chi-Chi’s monument in the middle of Wright Square.

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