Today In Bad Ideas: Some guy named Brad Paisley recorded a song, with LL Cool J, talking about how hard it is to be a white man who just wants to wear the Confederate flag in peace. It’s called “Accidental Racist”, and you can find the (completely problematic) lyrics here. source
Here’s the thing that you just need to understand. The Confederate flag is a symbol of the Confederacy and what it stood for, not the traditions and values (like hospitality) of the South.
The Confederate flag was adopted only by the Confederacy. It doesn’t predate the Confederacy, and it stopped being used with the fall of the Confederacy. In fact, the flag was only rarely used in the Confederacy; it was the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (Robert E. Lee’s army) and only later became associated with the entire confederacy. In fact, the “Confederate flag” you’re familiar with was never the official flag of the Confederacy.
The flag had a renaissance of sorts much later. Much later. The flag began appearing during WWII on units with Southern histories. The first use of the Confederate “stars and bars” on a Southern state flag was as early as 1894: no surprise, it was Mississippi. But that means that Mississippians didn’t mind revoking their heritage (the Magnolia flag, which was carried into battle during the Civil War by Mississippi regiments). Georgia’s controversial Confederate flag wasn’t introduced until 1956.
My problem with the “it’s part of our history” argument is two-fold: (1) The history of Southern states extends much further back than the Confederacy, so I’m left wondering why that pivotal (and controversial) moment has become identified as the historical juncture that should define what “the South” is about. (2) The history of the Confederacy was extremely brief: it lasted less than five years. (By contrast, the Third Reich lasted more than twice as long, giving the Nazi flag a stronger claim to historical tradition.)
So we’re left with an interesting historical juxtaposition. The Confederate flag was not widely used within the Confederacy, but is clearly identified with the Confederacy’s cause. And that flag had a boom in popularity starting in the 1950s. Coincidentally, the 1950s was the start of the modern US Civil Rights Movement. In other words, a symbol of the Confederacy (which will forever by identified with slavery) became popular in South at the same time as African-Americans began advocating for political and social equality.
Now you see why the Confederate flag is “controversial” (to say the least). It seems remarkable that people who want to defend their region’s rich cultural traditions and history (and they have many good reasons to do so, I should point out) have gravitated to a very particular symbol identified with racism. Attaching themselves to that symbol meant jettisoning historical state flags (where was the reverence for history then?) and doing so at the same time as Jim Crow and segregation was being challenged in the South.
Perhaps it’s because I’m just a “carpetbagger” (as I’m sure many of my students think), but I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone who—once confronted with the sheer historical narrative of that flag—would continue to embrace it. Waving a Confederate flag around is a clear sign that either (1) you don’t like black people very much, (2) you are in favor of violent overthrow of the US federal government, or (3) you really don’t care if people think you believe in the first two options or not.
EDIT: And please don’t even get me started on people in northern states that embrace the Confederate flag. When I see the “stars and bars” in Indiana, I know exactly what it means.