On October 12, 2015, some 15 suspects were charged with “terroristic, gang-related activities” after they participated in a convoy of pick-up trucks and other vehicles flying the Confederate Battle Flag, and harassed an innocent family in a park, making threatening and racist slurs, and threatening the family’s children. This event (which occurred on July 25, 2015) took place as part of a large-scale, racial backlash against an effort to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from state government properties in South Carolina and elsewhere. The racial backlash ironically joined with other voices of the south to argue that the Confederate Battle Flag is a legitimate symbol of “southern heritage” (and therefore of the South itself) and is not necessarily or predominantly a symbol of the South’s racist past (or present).
In the backlash of the “flag issue” of 2015, what public protests took place in defiance of the “flaggers” of Georgia and other states using the flag as a deliberate statement of racism? There were no such. Those seeking to protect the “honor” of the flag found offense in those decrying the flag’s racist past, but did nothing to jettison its continuing importance as a racist symbol. If those wishing both to protect the Confederate Battle Flag and to deny its racist connections only attack those taking the flag down, but not those adding to its racist legacy, they merely feed the fires of both racial antagonism and the flag issue as a separate question.
Taking the opposite view were commentators such as native Texan Mac McCann, a student and writer for the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, and various Texan publications. McCann noted specifically that confusing the Confederate Battle Flag with anything other than the purpose for which it was designed, a rally of pro-slavery secessionists against their own Southern Unionist and anti-slavery brethren, in defense of the deliberately slavery-preserving institution of the Confederacy, is a betrayal of the real legacy of Southern pride and honor. This argument has far better support from the historical record.
While pride in the land of one’s birth is a normal feeling among most people, the confusion of pride in the South with the legacy of the Confederate Battle Flag ignores far too many proud moments of the South’s history, and focuses in fact on the more ugly ramifications of “Southern heritage,” in denoting a land whose people fought for the defense of the preservation of slavery, and then struggled violently after their military defeat to subjugate the race they had fought to maintain as their servants. In fact, it is difficult to find, among those wishing to identify the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of the South, those who identify with or lionize the Southern Unionists who opposed secession, or who after secession (especially in East Tennessee, West Virginia, and parts of Alabama) struggled to retain connections with the North. Southerners would, of course, be cautioned not to fly the Battle Flag too close to the ghosts of Southern Unionists who died fighting Confederate troops marching under that flag. Southerners fighting for freedom in the Civil War saw the Battle Flag for what it was – a symbol of treason, secession, and slavery.
In fact, those identifying the Battle Flag as a symbol of the south in general very deliberately avoid associating with non-racist or anti-racist symbols of the South. Southerners fighting the good fight for freedom, against the institution of slavery and against the secession designed to preserve it, seem to disappear into the void as the Battle Flag flies. This decries the true honor and legacy of the South, a land that contributed over two hundred thousand of its young men (white and black) to the Union Army to fight against the slave-holding Confederacy. In fact, while records from the South make it difficult to ascertain precise numbers, the number of white Southerners who fought for the Union may number as much as a third (though probably somewhat less) of the number who fought for the Confederacy. In addition to the free whites of the South, freed and runaway slaves (as well as some of the very small, free black population of the South) also joined the fight for the Union and for freedom. But those who today fly the Confederate Battle Flag as a symbol of their “southern pride” spit on both the whites and the blacks of the South who fought to defeat the mission of those flying that flag – the preservation of slavery and of a racist society.
The flag problem can be seen in the context of two separate questions: what symbol(s) do “southern pride” proponents use, and what symbols don’t they use? It is easy for racists to identify with the Confederate Battle Flag, and with images of John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Bobby Lee. But those, white or black, who fought and died to make the South a better place by freeing it of the moral stain of slavery rarely end up being symbols of “southern pride.” Those faces are not, to southern racists, any symbol they choose to be proud of. Nor are the faces of the Little Rock Nine, or Ruby Nell Bridges, or MLK, or leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center, or other pioneers of the civil rights movement. Yet these southern freedom fighters made both the South and the US as a whole a better, and freer place. That those seeking to keep the Confederate Battle Flag flying do not generally identify with such powerful images of southern pride and heritage, tells anyone caring to listen, loudly and clearly, just what “southern pride and heritage” really means – the belief that a racially ordered society is normal, acceptable, even laudable, and worthy of its defense and preservation.
Ultimately, the “flaggers” of Georgia and elsewhere demonstrate, in concert with those quietly disapproving of the efforts to remove the flag from state offices, that their pride is not at all in the South, but in their racist identity and worldview. They refuse to accept legitimate symbols of pride that represent freedom, and instead embrace a warped and limited pride in one faction of the South, seeking to preserve a dying legacy of racial hatred. Their anger at those identifying the obvious connection between the Confederate Battle Flag and racism is not due to any misunderstanding or simplification of southern history by those wanting to take down the flag (a sin which the flag’s “defenders” themselves are at fault for committing), but due only to their guilt at being caught out in the immoral act of promoting racism and oppression in a supposedly democratic land.