Three years ago, Dylann Roof murdered nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and renewed a long-running debate about the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Since then, the discussion about flying the flag in public places—as well as ongoing fights about the removal of Confederate monuments—has been framed as the persistence of historic passions. This interpretation is deeply and dangerously misleading: In fact, the flag’s meaning has changed significantly over time, and the contemporary conflict about the flag should be seen more as a dispute about the future than the past.
The group of Americans whose views of the flag have been most shaped by real historical events are African Americans. Since the Civil War, African Americans have looked at the battle flag and rightly seen its role in a long, persistent history of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression. In forging that association, though, the battles of the 1960s may have been more important than those of the 1860s. And the state of race relations today is equally important when the flag, which was a symbol of racism in the past, is associated with justifying racism in the present. In polls, many African Americans support ending the official use of the Confederate flag, no doubt in part to make a statement about the continuing need to address institutional racism and white supremacy in American society.
For its white supporters, the meaning of the Confederate flag has shifted with time so that it is now much more closely tied to the country’s divisions today than to those of its past. While the meaning and salience of the flag is rooted in the Civil War and the Confederacy, the battles of the 1950s and 1960s—as well as those of the 1990s—prove more important in understanding the current debate than the battles of the 1860s. Flag supporters today are expressing resentment against African Americans and “concessions” granted to them as well as opposition to what they see as destabilizing social, cultural, and economic trends that have cost them status in the social hierarchy and put them at a relative disadvantage for the future. Thus, for supporters and detractors of the battle flag alike, it is a potent symbol of the America we want in the future.
Seeing the flag only through its historical association with the Confederacy and the South obscures the reality of its appeal today: Support for the flag today is nearly as strong in the Midwest as in some parts of the South. Its white supporters, who tend to be less educated and have lower incomes, do not act on past loyalties so much as out of a sense of grievance about opportunities for themselves and their children in the future. Likewise, some opponents of the flag have a grievance in the flag’s historic connection to structural racism, which has resulted in widespread denial of civil rights as well as lost income, education, and sense of belonging for blacks. They call for its removal as a symbolic gesture of moving onward toward a future that does not repeat our past. These twin grievances speak to deep and growing divides in American society.
Thus, the facile description of the battle flag as a relic of a previous Civil War prevents us from comprehending its distressing implications for the future of the country. It also prevents us from addressing—and perhaps healing—the growing rifts in American society that the flag has come to mark.
While today’s Confederate battle flag appears much the same as it did in the 1860s—as it has been copied on everything from state flags to coffee cups—its associations have shifted significantly over time. To understand why we’re still fighting about its symbolic meaning, you have to understand how it has been used since the Civil War, particularly in the last 80 years, as new meanings for the flag have been forged.
In the decades immediately after the Civil War, white Southerners revered the Confederate battle flag, but well into the 20th century, they flew it mostly on Confederate memorial days, during veterans’ reunions, and at monument unveilings. The flag’s use at this time was regional and tied to the memory of the war.
But in the late 1930s, display of the battle flag expanded when Congress nearly passed an anti-lynching bill, leading to increased white Southern fears of federal intervention in Southern race relations. In 1948, the battle flag’s use by the Dixiecrats—the segregationist, independent Southern Democratic Party that ran South Carolina governor J. Strom Thurmond for president—spurred the flag’s popularization.
In the 1950s, it became an ornament of popular culture, with Confederate flags flown in a multitude of contexts and featured on coffee mugs, T-shirts, beach towels, bikinis, and many other items. All served as symbols of a white Southern identity, an affirmation of pride in the region and its customs.
At the same time that it became a ubiquitous consumer culture item, the Confederate battle flag was used as the banner of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Councils, segregationist mobs, and others opposed to the civil rights movement and racial change, cementing its association with white supremacy. In 1956, Georgia adopted a new state flag that prominently featured the battle flag, and in the early 1960s both Alabama and South Carolina began to fly it over their capitols.
During the 1960s, African Americans, empowered by their victories in the civil rights movement, unsuccessfully challenged its use. In the 1970s and 1980s, black legislators proposed removing the Confederate flag from the Alabama capitol and adopting a new Georgia state flag, but their efforts failed.
The fate of the Confederate flag became a major national issue in 1993, when the United States Senate denied a patent renewal to the United Daughters of the Confederacy because its seal included a Confederate flag—in this case not the provocative battle flag, but the Stars and Bars, the first official flag of the Confederacy. Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, the nation’s first black, female senator, gave a moving speech in which she stated that the Civil War was fought “over the issue of whether or not my ancestors could be held as property, as chattel, as objects of trade and commerce.” A flag that stood for that cause, she argued, should not be “underwritten, underscored, adopted, and approved by this United States Senate.” Her view prevailed as the Senate voted.
At about the same time, disputes about the battle flag began in earnest over its place atop the state capitols in Alabama and South Carolina, on the capitol grounds in Florida, and as part of the state flag in Georgia and Mississippi. In each state, African Americans called for an end to such public uses of the flag, and for several years debates raged over the issue. Many whites had not changed their minds about the flag. Proponents claimed that they sought only to defend their heritage and honor their ancestors. Some, including prominent citizens, spoke of their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy—a cause they still considered noble.
But a closer look at opinion polls shows that history was not the major source of this white affinity for the flag. Southerners were neither informed nor enthusiastic about their history. A 1994 Southern Focus Poll found that nearly two-thirds of Southerners did not claim Confederate ancestors, and about half said that, “the Civil War doesn’t mean much to me personally.” Over 40 percent could not name a Civil War battle and only 32.8 percent could name one other than Gettysburg, which had been the title of a motion picture the year before.
By the 1990s, African Americans and some whites opposed the public use of the battle flag because of its historical association with slavery, the Confederacy, and racism. White support for removing the flag often came from the states’ elite, who worried that continued display of the flag threatened economic development. In Georgia, for example, the Atlanta business community’s fear that the flag would make attracting industry more difficult and present Georgia as a less welcoming place for the international community during the 1996 Olympics played a role in Governor Zell Miller’s decision to call to change his state’s flag, although he later withdrew the proposal in the face of opposition from the legislature.
Across the South, a new economically focused elite joined with activists to call for an end to the official use of the flag. The campaign to eliminate the battle flag from the existing state flag of Mississippi drew support from what sociologist John Shelton Reed described as “a truly remarkable coalition of historic adversaries: civil rights activists and country-club Republicans; student newspapers and university presidents; casino managers and fundamentalist ministers; trial lawyers and industrialists; college professors and football coaches.” In South Carolina in 2000, another “diverse confederation of business, civic, education, government and religious interests,” as one study put it, kicked off a fight to take the flag off the capitol.
To historians of the South, the Southern elites’ renunciation of the flag was remarkable. At the turn of the last century, the Southern elite promoted the Lost Cause, the white South’s celebration of the Confederacy as heroic and honorable; but by the turn of the 21st century, as historian Thomas Brown has observed, much of the South’s elite led the campaign to remove the very flag that symbolized it.
The battle over the flag began to take a new shape as these “remarkable coalitions” fought to remove it and public opinion began to shift. While a Mississippi referendum held in 2001 voted to reject a new design for its state flag, in other states public controversies ended in compromise. Georgia changed its flag—not once but twice between 2001 and 2003. In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush, as part of a construction project, took the flag off the capitol grounds and put it in a museum. In South Carolina and Alabama, the flag came down from the capitol dome and moved instead to the statehouse grounds. That most of the states achieved some form of compromise reflected increased African American political power and a change in attitudes among some white Southerners.
Polls confirmed this shift. In the 1980s, as John Shelton Reed noted, only 23 percent of Southern whites polled opposed the use of Confederate flags in public schools, while among blacks, 45 percent objected. By 2000, two polls, by CBS and CNN, showed Southern opposition to the official use of the flag had risen into the low-forties, with opposition outside the South slightly higher, although in neither poll did it reach 50 percent.
When the fight over the flag was revived in 2015, after Dylann Roof’s murders, there were again calls to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in South Carolina. After initially opposing the idea, Governor Nikki Haley and much of the state’s Republican establishment, worried in part about how its continued presence might discourage outside investment, endorsed taking down the flag. Later that summer, the legislature voted to remove the flag, although only after a contentious debate in the House. By then, opposition to the flag had spread to other states and the governor of Alabama, too, ordered the battle flag removed from its capitol grounds.
In the aftermath, national opinion polls showed opposition to the flag had continued to grow. Three polls found support for removal of the flag had risen, in one to 57 percent and in another to 55 percent. Over roughly two decades, support for ending official use of the flag has risen significantly. The shift in public attitudes no doubt in part reflects generational change, although surely some people changed their minds because of the flag’s association with racism. Far from being fixed in the historical past, both support and opposition to the flag has been malleable over the years—as its meanings have shifted for different groups of people.
But even though opposition to the flag’s display grew, support for the flag was still consistently strong, as more than 40 percent of Americans still favored its public display. Once the flag came down in Alabama and South Carolina, pro-flag protests increased. Groups formed to put up flags along highways and in other public places, and the debate over flying the Mississippi state flag intensified. In Charlottesville in 2017, a protest by white nationalists, some of whom carried Confederate flags, led to the death of a young woman there to challenge them. That same year, a candidate who made the Confederate flag and monuments central to his campaign almost won the Republican nomination for governor of Virginia and a year later became his party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Opinion had shifted but no consensus had emerged.
If this were about a Southern identity rooted in the Civil War, you would also expect the division over the flag to be regional, but in polls from 2000 through 2015, support for the Confederate flag in the Midwest almost equaled, and, in one poll, even exceeded that in the South. People driving through rural areas of states such as Maine and Michigan report seeing privately displayed Confederate flags. The symbolism of the flag has moved outward from the South to find new likeminded supporters.
The flag now seems to appeal to people who share demographic characteristics and partisan affinities, rather than history. In a 2015 poll, people who made under $50,000 supported the flag by 16 percentage points more than those who made over $50,000. Similarly, those who had not attended college were 18 percentage points more supportive than the college-educated. A still larger difference existed between rural and urban support; 60 percent of rural residents favored keeping the flag up, while only 36 percent of city dwellers did. Partisan divisions were equally significant; 70 percent of Democrats agree that the flag should come down from government buildings, whereas only 39 percent of Republicans do.
These divides reflect a fundamental division over values, a determination to preserve a certain vision of what America has been and a sense of grievance about what some people believe it is becoming. To understand how this connects to the Confederate battle flag, we need to reexamine the ideology of the Lost Cause, which persists today less in any specific memory of the Confederacy and more through the social values it promoted.
The Lost Cause emerged in the decades after the Confederacy’s defeat in part out of a sense of regional grievance and a sense that the North did not respect the honor of the Confederates. At its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lost Cause not only celebrated the service and sacrifice of Confederate soldiers, but also offered a model of the good society as one built both on white supremacy and also on deference to aristocratic leaders and loyalty to the social order. That social vision of the Lost Cause—along with the emphasis on conformity and order necessary to maintain a rigid, repressive racial system—helped make white Southerners particularly given to tribalism, accepting of hierarchy, and invested in symbols that supported both. The battle flag now represents that vision of a traditional, conservative social order where strict social hierarchies still apply.
This meaning of the flag, tied to the ideology of the Lost Cause, has stayed fairly consistent over the last 70 years. In 1951, contemporary news accounts quoted a store owner in Knoxville, Tennessee saying, “The Southerner loves his country, his women, his church, and his whiskey. The flag is a symbol of all these things so dear to his life.” 45 years later, a letter to the editor of a Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper explained, “As a Southern-American, I am tired of being told by others what the Confederate flag means to me….Speaking for myself, Southern heritage represents a way of life….It represents a time when you could walk the streets without fear. A time when the little man had a chance to make a life for his family. A time when God’s law was above all else.”
Most of the flag’s proponents tie those values to the United States, not to the Confederacy, which helps explain the seemingly paradoxical fact that the region with the strongest ties to the Confederate flag is also the region with the largest percentage of people who think it is important for the pledge of allegiance to be repeated in schools and who see America as a great country. Rallying around the Confederate flag may be, in the minds of many of its proponents, much more about preserving a traditional, hierarchical America than about perpetuating the memory of the Confederacy, much less reviving it.
Fighting to keep the flag flying offers a way for some to express their sense of grievance with an America where non-whites have more power than they did previously. After South Carolina’s 2015 fight over the flag, a Winthrop University poll asked: “Do you feel that generations of slavery and discrimination do or do not make it difficult for Blacks to get ahead?” Of those who believed that history did not make upward mobility difficult for blacks, 58 percent said that they approved of flying the flag on the capitol grounds; only 30 percent disapproved.
Although in no way a typical flag supporter, Dylann Roof provides both an example of the blatant form racism takes as well as evidence of how loyalty to the Confederate flag is often the result of contemporary resentments rather than historical loyalties. Although much remains unknown about Roof’s motives and beliefs, what is known so far suggests he was more interested in the history of black and white relations than the history of the Confederacy. Stirred by the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Roof embraced a radical white supremacy, railing about black crime and claiming blacks had taken over. His cause became race war and the restoration of white supremacy.
On a pre-massacre journey around South Carolina, Roof had his picture taken not only with Confederate flags but at Confederate historical sites. In an insightful analysis of that tour, Washington Post reporters noted that in Charleston Roof did not appear to have visited Fort Sumter. They found it “odd for someone who drives a car with a Confederate license plate to ignore the place where the Confederacy began.” They continued: “But when the totality of pictures on his Web site, and the manifesto he posted there, are considered, it becomes apparent that the only part of the Confederacy that interested him was slavery. There are no pictures of Civil War battlefields, no screeds about the heroic Robert E. Lee, George Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, no Lost Cause ideology.”
On his Facebook profile picture, he wore a jacket on which he had sewn the flags of South Africa and Rhodesia. Any flag associated with white supremacy, it seemed, would do. Roof found inspiration not in the Confederacy but, as historian Edward Ball, who covered his trial observed, in Nazi Germany.
If Roof was not a typical flag supporter, his route to embracing the battle flag was by no means his alone. White nationalists, many from outside the South, embrace the flag simply as a symbol of white supremacy. Also like Roof, white nationalists and neo-Nazis display the battle flag along with a host of other racist and neo-Nazi symbols. Their ideological racism owes more to a nativist strain of American thought, epitomized by the Klan of the 1920s and Nazism, than to the Lost Cause itself.
Other supporters of the flag may not rally with white supremacists, but race plays a central role in their defense of the battle flag. At a 1994 protest over the flag at the South Carolina capitol, a white woman shouted at a black counter-protester: “We’ve given you everything you’ve asked for! We’re tired of it.” And in the midst of the South Carolina debate in 2000, after the NAACP called for an economic boycott of the state, state Senator Arthur Ravenel claimed, “the flag is a lot stronger now with the boycott a-goin’ on than it was before. You don’t really think the General Assembly of South Carolina is gonna knuckle under to the N-A-A-C-P, headquartered in…wherever the hell they are—where is it, New York?”
Flag advocates have often argued that if the state took the flag down or removed it from a state flag, blacks would only ask for more. One respondent to a Mississippi newspaper poll cited by John Shelton Reed said that if Mississippi adopts a new state flag, “They’ll want us to change the state flower because they don’t like the smell.” Another respondent to the same poll, though, suggested more was at stake, complaining “that too many concessions” have been made to blacks already.
This use of the word “concessions” emerges from a profound form of racial politics that intertwines a rhetoric of resentment with conceptions of history. Supporters seem to fear that admitting the flag’s ties to racial oppression in the past will justify and lead to “concessions” to African Americans in the present. Honoring the flag, then, represents a denial of America’s racial past, which makes it easier to oppose programs—such as affirmative action or even welfare—that are perceived as disproportionately helping blacks.
The depth of this reasoning can be seen in a national poll from 2000 that asked whether “the government in Washington is paying too much, not enough, or about the right amount of attention to the needs and problems of blacks and other minorities.” Of those who thought the government paid too much attention to the needs of blacks, 74 percent wanted the Confederate flag to continue to fly over state capitols. Among those who thought it did not pay enough attention, only 22 percent favored flying the flag—a difference of 52 percentage points. Thus, support for the flag has become associated with the denial of a long history that could justify future policies supporting blacks.
Dylann Roof again provides a surprising example of this thinking. In a little-noticed section of the racist screed that he prepared before the murders, he wrote, “I wish with a passion that n—–s were treated terribly throughout history by Whites, that every White person had an ancestor who owned slaves, that segregation was an evil an oppressive institution, and so on. Because if it was all true, it would make it so much easier for me to accept our current situation,” by which he meant the loss of white supremacy. “But it isnt [sic] true. None of it is. We are told to accept what is happening to us because of ancestors wrong doing, but it is all based on historical lies, exaggerations and myths.” Roof’s formulation wrongly assumes a current world of black domination, but his reasoning nonetheless implies a realization that if history did show that whites had oppressed blacks for centuries, actions to help African Americans would be justified.
In his 1982 book Southerners, John Shelton Reed wrote that white Southerners’ sense of identity owed much to a culture of grievance, in part a response to a long history of Northern criticism and condescension. But he also questioned the depth of Southerners’ interest in the Confederacy and astutely suggested that the “link between attachment to the Confederacy and Southern identification may run at least as much from the identification to the attachment as vice versa.” Today, this complex sense of grievance, not loyalty to the Confederacy, contributes to identification with the flag.
Three decades later, we can see that supporters have embraced the battle flag as a symbol of multiple grievances, including resentment over the increased—if not fully equal—status of African Americans, the power and influence of economic and cultural elites, and a perceived loss of traditional values. Country music and Southern rock, which have used the flag as a symbol of alienation and defiance, have also done their part to build this meaning for the flag—and to spread its use outside the South and even in Germany, Ireland, and Italy among other countries. To modify and extend Reed’s formulation: A shared sense of white grievance explains the modern embrace of Confederate symbols rather than the other way around.
Symbolic statements are significant, as are the changes in the official use of the Confederate flag: The removal of a symbol so closely associated with white supremacy is a good thing in and of itself, particularly if the battle flag actually stimulates racism, as one experimental study by psychologists has suggested. If the flag debate can be made to serve as a prelude to a more fundamental discussion of the heritage of slavery, segregation, and racial oppression, and spur Americans to address structural inequalities in our society, it will become even more important.
It may be difficult to grasp that what appears to be the ultimate American regional symbol—it is, after all, a Confederate battle flag—is now no longer tied exclusively to the South or to its particular history, but that is the nature of symbols. One danger of continuing to treat the flag as a regional issue is that it allows people who live outside the South to dismiss the flag and its historical associations as yet another sign of uniquely southern failings, when racism plagues communities across America today.
What’s more, focusing on the Civil War origins of the flag ignores the divide within American society today, one that transcends geography and in which so many—blacks and whites—have a sense of grievance. More than region, race and racism shape attitudes toward the flag. The sense of grievance among flag supporters, rooted in part in the fear that whites are losing their influence and their opportunities in a changing America, has made it a potent symbol waved in defiance of a perceived economic and cultural elite that supports its removal.
In this sense, fights over the official display of the battle flag are not so much about the flag itself—which has a symbolic meaning that has shifted over the years—but about the America we want to have in the future. Confining our analysis to the flag’s historical association with the South obstructs our understanding of how race and inequality are dividing us now, and it has kept us from engaging in a fundamental rethinking of America’s racial past and present. What we need to see more clearly is that the ongoing struggle over the meaning of the Confederate flag could be an opportunity for reconciliation of these pressing cultural divisions in American society: White nationalism must be condemned, the injustices of the American racial order must be corrected, and all Americans’ fears for the future need to be addressed.