Random Ephemera

The Confederate Flag: Heritage Or Hate?

"Heritage, not hate."

Or so goes a three word sentiment often expressed by some Southerners trying to defend the display of the Confederate flag.

That flag is instantly recognizable to nearly anyone, the iconic "rebel flag" which has adorned everything from the General Lee muscle car in "The Dukes of Hazard" to countless Lynyrd Skynyrd concert shirts. The Confederate flag is not a neutral symbol though; it evokes very strong reactions from people. Those who like the flag seem to REALLY love it, defending it as a display of pride in their southern heritage free from negative connotations, while a lot of others view it as a symbol of racism forever linked to slavery and oppression.

The flag is in the news from time to time, as controversies over its modern day usage are common. In the wake of the murderous rampage by a young racist gunman that left nine people dead in an historic African American church in South Carolina, the painful legacy of the Confederate flag is once again in the forefront of many people's minds. Many are questioning how it's possible that a flag with its associations can continue to fly on the state capital grounds, even in the aftermath of a mass murder that was apparently racially motivated.

Defenders of the flag argue that the Confederate flag is simply an outward expression of pride in southern life and its traditions, and is not racist in nature. The problem, is that while the contemporary use of that flag is probably not always an indication that a person is a racist, the flag itself has been used by many for that purpose, and its very roots are tied to a racist past. 

One of the logical sidesteps that seem to be made a lot of the time by the same "Heritage not hate" crowd, is that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, but instead over state rights. Unfortunately, that point of view conveniently avoids the fact that the specific state right that the South was upset about was its right to secede from the Union, and the primary reason southerners wanted to secede was to preserve their right to own slaves. That is a simplification of complex events and attitudes at the time, but it's disingenuous to argue that slavery was not a central issue leading up to the Civil War. The "Confederate flag" most often displayed today was adopted as the North Virginian Battle Flag under the leadership of General Robert E. Lee, and was never used to represent the Confederate States of America as a whole. In the years following the end of the Civil War, the display of the Confederate flag fell out of fashion in the South, and was generally only seen at memorials for fallen Confederate soldiers or other similar functions.

Beginning in the 20th century, the Confederate flag began to enter a revival of sorts - During World War II, soldiers from southern states were known to display it as a show of regional pride, and it began to be seen at football games in southern colleges. While those sorts of uses might point to the flag as a reclaimed form of southern identity and pride, it was soon adopted by white southerners opposed to desegregation and the civil rights movement. As soon as social forces began to protest the institutional racism that African Americans still faced in mid-century America, the Confederate flag came out of retirement, once again as a symbol of oppression geared at keeping a racist status quo alive.

Over the next few decades the flag seems to have been adopted by racists and non racists alike - slipping its way into pop culture, a lazy symbol of rebellion trotted out by everyone from rock bands to clothing designers. It also continued to be displayed by many southerners as a representation of pride in their heritage.

It is impossible to consider the idea of the rebel flag as a sign of non-racist regional pride, when it has so often been wielded by racists. When almost any KKK rally still has people displaying the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy, it becomes obvious why so many people regard it as a symbol of oppression and racism. Surely there must be a better way to express southern pride than preserving symbols that are forever linked to things modern day southerners shouldn't be proud of? Clinging to a flag that divides one region within the United States from another does not seem like a good way to move forward as a society. There must be a better way for people who want to honor the memory of their ancestors who fought for the Confereacy than continuing to fly a flag that has been used by modern day hate groups.

It's time for people to abandon the Confederate flag, and find some other way to celebrate their southern pride.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.