Before June 17, 2015, Gorham Flag Center of Gorham, Maine had sold two Confederate flags in the owner’s recent memory. After June 17, the store received a dozen requests for the item. But Gorham Flag Center could not have fulfilled the orders even if it wanted to. The manufacturer had abruptly stopped making the flag in direct response to that pivotal day: June 17, when a white supremacist named Dylann Roof opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine people. Photos later found of Roof posing with the Confederate flag triggered vigorous debate about the symbol’s modern display.
The Confederate flag has a habit of popping up in illogical places. From Maine to Brazil, the flag appears on the bumper stickers and bikinis of folks who have little or no ties to the historical Confederacy. In his book Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, Rich Benjamin describes his surprise seeing many flags during a drive through the Pacific Northwest. These non-Southern sightings show that the flag is not exclusively invoked as a symbol of native “Dixie” pride and heritage. Who are these faux-Confederates then, and what makes them so enamored with the red flag with the starred St. Andrew’s cross?
These questions are urgent because the country is now at a legislative crossroads in regards to federal toleration of the Confederate flag. On May 19, 2016, the House voted 295-129 to pass an appropriations bill that included an amendment to bar the use of federal funds to display Confederate flag imagery in Virginia cemeteries. Other amendments that have been proposed in Congress include provisions to prohibit display of the flag in national parks (including gift shops) and federal cemeteries. As the flag slowly becomes more and more unwelcome in the public sphere, its supporters have doubled down efforts to argue for its legitimacy. Many of the fiercest battlegrounds of this fight are in places one might not expect.
Take Harrisburg for example, the Pennsylvania capital and once-Union supply nexus that was threatened by Lee’s Maryland and Gettysburg Campaigns during the Civil War. At the city’s annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in January 2016, vendors were asked stop selling merchandise ornamented with the flag. The vendors cooperated peacefully. Debbie Clements, who operated a booth selling western wear, commented that in previous years, “Ninety percent of my [flag] sales were to the kids. They bought it because it was the rebel thing.” Some visitors, however, were extremely displeased at the Farm Show’s new edict. Kim Tasker, visiting from West Virginia, a state literally created in opposition to the Confederacy, declared that she would have bought a flag item if they had been available. “It’s crazy how this world is turning out these days,” she lamented.
In June 2015, again in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, Time Magazine reported that Amazon sales of Confederate flags had surged 7000% over the previous week, topping the site’s “Patio, Lawn, and Garden” category. Shortly thereafter, Amazon stopped selling the flag products. Around the same time, a manager at a mall in Grandville, Michigan was asked to remove a T-shirt from the display window of his shop. The shirt featured the image of a Confederate flag and the message, “If this shirt offends you, you need a history lesson.”
The Michigan store owner might agree that a history lesson about the Confederate flag should begin with the Civil War, but his narrative is one of ignorance. A true understanding of why the flag “offends” is predicated on two things: first, the acceptance that the Civil War was a treasonous conflict fought over slavery, and second, the emblem of this conflict has been appropriated for racist means. According to historian John Coski, an expert on the flag’s iconographic history, “[M]en carrying the battle flag preserved and perpetuated the Confederate cause and their flag became the symbol of Confederate nationalism. Linking the flag to slavery and racism requires only linking the cause to slavery.” Serious scholars have reached the consensus that slavery was the cause of the war. As South Carolina congressman Lawrence Keitt proclaimed just before the war’s beginning: “African slavery is the cornerstone of the industrial, social, and political fabric of the South; and whatever wars against it, wars against her very existence.”
The design we now refer to as the “Confederate flag” never even historically represented the Confederate States of America, nor was it ever recognized as one of its national flags. This particular flag, whose design was originally likened by Confederate politicians to “a pair of suspenders,” served as the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and flew over soldiers who were fighting to establish a separate slave-nation. After World War II, however, white Southerners “rediscovered” the emblem and elevated it to “an all-purpose symbol – honorable to some, offensive to others, visible to all.”
From college football games to KKK rallies, new uses of the flag allowed different groups to mold and expand its meaning. For the first time, individuals with no first-hand memory of the war as well as those who lived outside the borders of the South could ignore its association with a racially-motivated, highly territorial, and ultimately failed conflict. It can be argued that the flag only truly realized the spirit of “rebellion” when it was invoked against the progress of Civil Rights from the 1940s to the 1960s. Widespread images have been published of Southerner protestors waving the flag while screaming at black citizens, proving that the flag had become something “white people intended as a symbol of racism.”
As the Pennsylvania Farm Show example illustrates, an idolization of the general concept of rebellion is central to many non-Southerners’ affinity for the flag. But the surge of flag purchases from Amazon and other retailers following a tragic mass shooting represents a far more disturbing ideology that should no longer hide under the guises of heritage and reconciliation. As Princeton scholar Wallace Best argues, “The Confederate flag can no more be disentangled from the history of slavery in America than can the Swastika from Nazism. How would ordinary German citizens who wanted to reclaim the Swastika as a legitimate part of their heritage be perceived?”
During a recent Smithsonian conference on the “Future of the African American Past,” a speaker was asked why Confederate iconography and monuments are singled out for removal and prohibitive legislation, while memorials related to earlier slaveholders such as Washington and Jefferson remain revered. He responded, “There’s a difference between someone who was trying to found a country and someone who was trying to destroy it.” Southerners must find a better representation of their heritage than the Confederate flag, a specious relic of the most shameful moments in their long history. Non-Southerners also have a responsibility: repudiate the new “meanings” of the flag that have flourished in recent decades. 150 years ago, residents of Northern states would have considered it patently absurd to find an enemy battle flag planted in their soil. Flying the Confederate flag, regardless of intent, is compliance with racism and direct treason to the United States. The only place it belongs is in a museum.
Rich Benjamin, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America (Hachette, 2009)
Wallace Best, “Mama and the Confederate Flag,” Callaloo, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2001): 14-17.
John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2005)
Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts, “Region, Race, and Support for the South Carolina Confederate Flags,” Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 1 (2006): 142-154.
J. Michael Martinez, The Georgia Confederate Flag Debate,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 2 (2008): 200-228.