This essay will appear in Citizen Scholar: Essays in Honor of Walter Edgar, edited by Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr. and forthcoming from the University of South Carolina Press. © 2015 University of South Carolina. Appears with publisher and author permission.
Southerners should be the last Americans to expect indefinite continuity of their history and its symbols. History lives in time; and time continues to unfold, regardless of our efforts to set it in stone or to freeze it in memory. The causes and consequences of the Civil War are blurred now into mythology, into signs and symbols. Historical memory of such transformations as slavery and secession, disunion and defeat, emancipation and reconstruction, reunion and reaction, and the passing of such structures as one-crop agriculture, one-horse farms, and one-party politics, would seem to afford us scant basis for assuming the eternal duration of our social arrangements or their symbols.
Perhaps the most enduring symbol of the Civil War--and certainly the most conspicuous--is the so‑called “Confederate battle flag.” But just what it symbolizes has sparked what Walter Edgar has called the most “emotionally charged” controversy in the recent history of South Carolina. One may well wonder why Confederate flags and monuments have generated such passionately contested interpretations and provoked such intense controversy. At least part of the reason is that a contest over symbols is necessarily a contest over what they symbolize; and in this case, that makes it a struggle for Southern identity.
The flag was held by some to be a sacred symbol of Southern heritage, and they sought to keep it flying atop the dome of the South Carolina State House. The flag was held by others to be a shameful symbol of slavery and racism, and they sought to have it removed. Sacralization of the flag helped some to deal with the immensity and horror of the Civil War. But the flag was a constant reminder to others of the immensity and horror of slavery. One of the region's most prominent literary figures, Shelby Foote, tried to help his fellow white Southerners appreciate why the flag was so controversial to black Southerners: “Anybody with any sensitivity must understand the pain black people must feel whenever the banner flying is the one that was the very symbol of their degradation and mistreatment.” Another prominent Southern literary figure, Walter Sullivan, poignantly put the case for the flag as heritage: “The flag represents the past, tradition, of course, but not in any abstract sense: people, rather, real individuals who lived and fought and suffered and died and who remained, while they lived, willing to die for what they believed in.” Sullivan acknowledged that “They were not all heroes; through the long generations before and after the Civil War each group was a mixed bag, but they are what we southerners come from. It is in terms of them . . . that we begin to define ourselves.”
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A Federal District Court summarized the variety of attitudes toward the flag: “There are citizens of all races who view the flag as a symbolic acknowledgment of pride in Southern heritage and ideals of independence. Likewise, there are citizens of all races who perceive the flag as embodying principles of discrimination, segregation, white supremacy, and rebellion. Still other citizens either have no knowledge of the flag's . . . [history] or have no interest in it.” The court concluded “Undoubtedly, the Confederate battle flag does not represent the same thing to everyone.” The banner had flown over the Capitol since the state's segregationist government had to confront the civil rights movement.
Like so much else relating to the Civil War in culture and memory, from its origins to its aftermath the flag controversy was animated by unanticipated events and saturated with ambiguities and ironies large and small. The first irony is that the flag in question was the wrong flag. The banner that the fuss was all about was not a “Confederate battle flag,” as claimed by supporters and opponents alike. The banner atop the state house was neither the official symbol of the Confederate government nor the battle flag under which its troops made war against the United States. It flew over neither the Confederate capitols in Montgomery or Richmond nor any Confederate state capitol. Its rectangular and unbordered shape bore scant resemblance to the flags of Confederate military units. It was a blatant example of what Eric Hobsbawm has called “invented traditions.”
The particular form of the flag that flew atop the State House was known when I was a boy as the “Rebel flag.” It had earlier come to prominence as the standard of the so-called “Dixiecrats,” a group of segregationist Southern defectors from the Democratic Party during the presidential election of 1948. After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, it was appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and others as an explicitly anti-civil rights banner.
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The origins of the flag controversy are as riddled with ambiguities as the meaning of the flag itself. Most accounts stress that the flag was first raised over the South Carolina State House in 1962, in celebration of the Civil War centennial. But the actual origins of the flag controversy are more complex--and more interesting.
Our story begins with Daniel W. Hollis, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, author of a two-volume history of the university, and grandson of a Confederate officer, who was appointed by Governor Ernest Hollings in 1959 to serve on a commission to plan the state's Centennial observance. “I was the only Civil War historian,” he recalled in a 1999 interview; and “John May was chairman.” May, a member of the state legislature from Aiken, “called himself `Mr. Confederacy' and wore a Confederate uniform to our meetings.” There were also three delegates from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Hollis was consistently outvoted. “I tried to get them to call it the ‘Civil War Centennial,’” he said, “but they insisted on calling it the `Confederate War Centennial.’” May and the UDC representatives also insisted that “the war wasn't fought over slavery but states' rights.” Hollis countered that “it was over the states' right to own slaves and enforce white supremacy. . . . The ruling elite that ran this state all owned slaves. Without the slavery issue South Carolina would not have seceded.” Nonetheless, May told the group he would introduce a resolution to raise the flag over the capitol dome and fly it for a year. Hollis said “I was against the flag going up”; but by the time May introduced his resolution in 1962, the flag had been fluttering over the State House for nearly a year.
During the 1950s the South Carolina Senate had decided to install the “Confederate battle flag” behind the Senate chamber's rostrum. At that time no flags flew over the State House dome, because the climb to put it there was considered too dangerous. However, during the week of April 11-12, 1961, commemorating the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the legislature ordered the Rebel flag raised on a pole over the north portico of the capitol, along with the United States and South Carolina flags. At the end of the week all three flags were removed. But at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, the precise date and time that Citadel cadets had fired the first shots of the Civil War, a company of legislators and others raised a rebel flag—donated by May--over Ft. Sumter. When it was discovered at dawn, park rangers immediately took it down. But as the 1861 bombardment was being re-enacted, the flag raisers drank a toast and resolved to hoist the rebel flag where the federal government would be unable to remove it. In January of 1962 the legislature ordered that ladders to the dome be repaired, and in February Representative May introduced a concurrent resolution to fly the “Confederate battle flag.” By the end of March three flags--federal, state, and Confederate--were flying from the dome. No explanation for the flying of these three flags was reported at the time by the press. When I called for the flag's removal in March 1962, that wasn't reported in the press, either. The flags, meanwhile, remained. By the late 1990s, with a new flag controversy sweeping the state, aging ex-legislators declared that they had raised the flag to commemorate the Centennial. The great irony in the flag controversy during the 1990s was its link to another contentious issue--video poker. Republican voters served notice of their pro-flag sentiments by a three-fourths majority in an advisory referendum during their 1994 primary. But in 1996, midway in his gubernatorial term, David Beasley, a Republican linked to the Christian right, took a strong stand in favor of removing the flag from the dome and placing it on a pole on the State House grounds near the Confederate Soldier Monument. He was able to bring together mainstream clergy, the business community, and every living former governor of South Carolina in support of his position (including the venerable Senator Strom Thurmond, who had flown the rebel flag as the emblem of his “Dixiecrat” presidential bid more than fifty years earlier). Some of South Carolina's most respected business executives even filed suit in state court to bring the Confederate flag down from the dome. But the governor was unable to persuade legislators of his own party, who controlled the House, to pass the proposal. Demonstrations for and against the flag served more to rally the faithful than to convert the skeptical. Walter Edgar observed, “In the war of words over the flag, there were indications that for some the definition of community was narrow and that good order and harmony were unimportant. The debate was often heated, and some individuals on both sides of the issue damaged the state's reputation for civility and good manners.”
While his stand on the flag issue cost him support, Beasley might have survived his loss politically had he not also come out against video poker the same year. Both parties split over the poker issue, but flag supporters supplied the anger and the gambling interests provided the money to deny Beasley reelection in 1998. And the twin albatrosses remained linked until the end. The last day that the flag flew from the dome was also the last day that video poker machines could operate legally in South Carolina. Beasley was stoic: “If my taking on those two issues, which led to my defeat, resulted in those two issues being resolved in terms that are good for South Carolina, it's worth it.”
Old images and fantasies of the past still played a lingering part in the dispute, and connections between the flag issue and the Civil War were central to the controversy. So-called “Southern heritage” groups--including such modern-day secessionist groups as the League of the South and the Southern Party--insisted that the real issue of the Civil War was the right of the Southern people to self-determination. Any association with slavery was purely coincidental. On the contrary, they often stated, the slave states were fighting for freedom, because the free states wanted to enslave them.
On March 31, 2000, South Carolina's historians called a news conference to issue a formal statement--with supporting evidence--that secession was motivated by the determination to maintain slavery. I wrote the document; and ninety-four of my colleagues, the overwhelming majority of the professional historians in the state, immediately signed it. More than 100 eventually signed the statement. Ninety-two of the original signers lived and worked in South Carolina. The other two were native South Carolinians who lived out-of-state, one a professor at the University of Illinois and the other the retired President of Wesleyan College. Some seventy of the historians stood with me at the news conference, which received wide coverage in the media. But only one newspaper printed the full text of the statement. Most of the coverage was reduced to such weighty headlines as “Historians say war was about slavery.”
There were not only the expected responses by “heritage” groups, but also a “counter-statement” signed by thirty-four pro-flag writers, only a few of whom were either historians or South Carolinians. Without having been able to read the text of the historians' statement, the author(s) of the counter-statement did not engage its evidence but simply reiterated earlier positions. Both the original and counter-statements, it should be noted, were marked by a tone of civility all too often missing in other discourse on the issue.
The historians' news conference was timed to coincide with media coverage of a march from Charleston to Columbia to protest the rebel flag. Organized and led by Charleston mayor Joseph P. Riley, the marchers set out on April 1. Five days and 120 miles later they reached the State House, where they were joined by Governor James Hodges, former Governor David Beasley, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, and a crowd estimated by police to number 2,000. On the other side of the building about 300 flag supporters staged a counter-demonstration.
In a resolution adopted at their 1999 annual national convention, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had resolved: “Whereas, the placement of the Confederate Battle Flag at the South Carolina State House with the flags of two existing governments, the United States of America and the state of South Carolina, implies sovereignty and allegiance to a non-existent nation,” the organization affirmed its “condemnation of the Confederate Battle Flag being flown over the South Carolina State Capitol and displayed within the South Carolina House and Senate Chambers” and renewed “its call for the removal and relocation of the Confederate Battle Flag to a place of historical rather than sovereign context.” The convention asked national organizations, churches, family reunions, businesses, and corporations, to “consider locations other than the state of South Carolina as convention or meeting sites, until such time that the Confederate Battle Flag is removed from positions of sovereignty in the state of South Carolina.”
The tourist boycott of the state generated various ironic results. Since tourism was South Carolina's preeminent source of income, some state officials and sectors of the business community were sufficiently concerned to call for lowering the flag. But the flag was not lowered, and the boycott went into effect in 2000. Tourism boomed anyway. Several conventions were cancelled in Myrtle Beach, including a meeting of the North Carolina Bar Association, a medical conference of the Mayo Clinic, and a tournament of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Despite the boycott, hotels in the state remained filled to capacity, and statewide direct spending by tourists rose 5.7% from the previous year. Tax revenue from tourism went up 9.7%, and tourism's overall economic impact rose 11.1%. May in Myrtle Beach was--as usual--filled with the roars of motorcycles as the annual Harley-Davidson convention (mostly white) was followed by the annual gathering known as the “Black Biker Weekend,” each drawing thousands of bikers from as far away as New England. Merchants scrambled to take down the Confederate memorabilia emblematic of Harley's “Hogs” before the black bikers arrived. The slight dip in attendance at the “Black Biker Weekend” was almost certainly attributable to the NAACP boycott, but the effect was miniscule. In general, even African-American tourism increased in Myrtle Beach. By the time the flag was removed from the dome, it already had itself become a tourist attraction.
Among the most intriguing ironies associated with the boycott were the unlikely splits and alliances it prompted. It was not always as simple as it might seem to distinguish between allies and adversaries, even though Republican legislators general opposed lowering the flag from the dome until late in the debate, and Democratic legislators—white as well as black—generally favored removing the flag from the beginning. Hosts of reporters, columnists, and television pundits, mobilized by the high stakes in the 2000 presidential campaign, sped southward in February to cover the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. The convergence of the primary, the flag controversy, and the boycott created an unintended NAACP-GOP coalition of sorts that focused a great deal of national media attention on the state, most of it unflattering.
In the aftermath of the historians’ statement, Walter Edgar made a unique contribution to South Carolina. His authoritative history of the state gave him considerable credibility among the leaders of both sides, bolstered by his popular weekly radio program, “Walter Edgar’s Journal” and his appearances on South Carolina Educational Television’s coverage of the debates. His objectivity and non-affiliation with either side enabled him to help legislative leaders craft a compromise that provided that the Rebel flag would be removed from the State House dome and replaced with a replica of the actual battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia at the Confederate Soldier Monument on the State House Grounds. Most black Senators supported the compromise, although not without reservations. But most black members of the House of Representatives opposed it, ironically forging in the process a de facto coalition with die-hard opponents of any effort to remove the Rebel flag from the dome.
The legislative debates on the compromise bill did not constitute that body's finest hour. They inspired some occasional poignant and heartfelt discourse, but they also provoked various blasts of hot air, some intemperate attacks on the NAACP, and one bizarre filibuster by a Republican Senator whose tasteless repetitions droned on long after his weary colleagues were ready to adjourn for the day.
Finally, however, the legislative bodies approved the compromise bill and on Tuesday, May 23, it went into law.. The bill called for the rebel flag to come down from the State House dome and from the House and Senate chambers, and the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia being raised at the site of the Confederate Monument. In his televised address, the governor said he was “pleased to report that the long debate over removing the Confederate flag from the dome of the State House is finally over,” adding that “Today, we bring this debate to an honorable end. Today, the descendants of slaves and the descendants of Confederate soldiers join together in the spirit of mutual respect. Today the debate over the Confederate flag above the Capitol passes into South Carolina history.”
Predictably, the debate did no such thing. The governor, who had staked so much on forging a compromise, came in for both praise and criticism. It is true that the compromise had something for everybody. And it is true that many lawmakers and business people saw the compromise as a great step forward and were glad to have the matter off the state's agenda. But it is also true that few people on either side of the issue got what they wanted. Some were angry. Some--with stoic resignation--believed that the compromise was the best solution possible at the time. Senator Kay Patterson, an African American lawmaker, had sought the flag's removal for nearly three decades. While the intersection of Main and Gervais Streets—right in front of the State House--was “the last place I wanted to see it,” he said, “In this political world down here, you have to count votes. The only votes we could count were those votes to take it down and put it by the soldier [monument]. Otherwise it would have still been up.” The business community, which had worked hard to remove the flag from the dome, was cautiously optimistic. The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that it was “pleased” by the state's decision and reinstated its regional basketball tournament in the state. And a large African-American Masonic group decided to hold its December meeting in Columbia.
But others worried that the inordinate prominence accorded the battle flag at the Confederate Monument was an affront to black Carolinians and would continue to cast the state in a bad light. Speaking for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the executive director of the South Carolina Conference declared that the organization was “insulted” by the compromise and vowed that “this thing is far from over.” The state president of the Conference agreed: “We're in it for the long haul.” The National Black Prosecutors Association, which had moved its convention from Kiawah Island to Washington, decided to continue its boycott of South Carolina. Some artists cancelled appearances at Charleston's upcoming Spoleto Festival. On the other hand, prize-winning novelist Josephine Humphreys organized a session at the Spoleto Festival itself entitled “Beyond the Flag: Southern Writers Speak,” in which Allen Gurganis, Blanche Boyd, Randall Kenan, and I made the flag issue a centerpiece. On the other side, heritage groups rejected the compromise because they believed that it ignored “fallen soldiers.” Flag supporters and opponents both began organizing demonstrations for July 1, the day the flag was to come down from the dome. Clearly there would still be a struggle ahead.
The governor--and many others--hoped that the July 1 ceremonies would serve as a unifying ritual that would bring an end to one of the most divisive issues in the state’s history and bring South Carolinians together as one people. But it was not to be. The State House grounds became instead a stage for protests for and against the flag. Not surprisingly, people unhappy with the compromise wanted to voice their dissent, but they did not always do so with civility or decorum. The arrogance of some was matched only by the ignorance of others. In the end, the day's ceremonies offered scant prospect of good order and harmony and forecast controversies to come.
By midmorning on July 1, 2000, it was already muggy and scorching. At about 8 a.m., a caravan of vehicles bearing Confederate banners arrived at the James F. Byrnes monument on the northeast corner of the State House grounds. The “Million Rebel March,” as it called itself, was organized by the South Carolina Council of Conservative Citizens. Until two p.m. it protested the lowering of the flag with country music and fire-eating rhetoric. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the League of the South, on the other hand, simply boycotted the proceedings. At about nine a.m., people gathered at Memorial Park in the Vista to participate in a silent march organized by the state conference of the NAACP to demonstrate their opposition to the raising of a new Confederate flag. Escorted by police on horseback, the demonstrators at around 10 a.m. marched to the State House and past the flag's new home at the Confederate Monument. Flag supporters yelled catcalls and held up signs reading “Head on down to the slave market!” while someone wearing a Confederate hat yelled at the marchers, “You're all racists!” The silent march was followed by a rally against the compromise led by the Assembly of African American Leaders on the south side of the Capitol. At eleven a.m., the Confederate States of America Historical Preservation Society held a news conference in front of the Confederate Soldier Monument.
Then, at noon, in an apt bit of symbolism, two Citadel cadets, one black and one white--wearing dress gray uniforms with plumed hats--ascended the staircase to the State House dome. There they opened two small doors and gently lowered the flags with a hand crank. They folded it carefully into a square, reserving the triangular fold for the United States flag. Then they descended the winding staircase. The black cadet carried the Confederate flag. The two emerged on the third floor balcony, descended another set of stairs, and delivered the flag into the care of Governor James Hodges. He would transfer it to the State Museum, where the Confederate flags from the Senate and House chambers had already been taken without fanfare.
In the meantime, Senators Glenn McConnell, Arthur Ravenel, and John Courson, flag defenders who had nonetheless supported the compromise, held an emotional meeting with uniformed members of the Palmetto Battalion, a statewide re-enactors organization. The Senators initialed the new flag's white border as a means of authenticating it. Then the Battalion's twelve-member color guard marched outside to the beat of two drums and raised the battle flag at the site of the Confederate Monument. The air was filled with blood-curdling rebel yells, almost drowning out the shouts of “shame!” and “take it back down!” as well as the shrieks of more than a hundred whistles, as flag opponents sought to “blow the whistle on racism.” The official ritual took eight minutes; the cheers of triumph and jeers of scorn clashed loudly for nearly half an hour.
At two p.m. the Council of Conservative Citizens unfurled a torn and faded 50-foot by 50-foot battle flag and laid it across the Capitol steps to protest the denial of a public referendum on the flag issue. The demonstration was part of the “Million Rebel March,” but it was something closer to a three-hundred rebel rally. “They're not going to take away our guns and our freedoms here,” one of the speakers roared. From the opposite end of the political spectrum, the S.C. Progressive Network gathered on the northwest corner of the grounds, near the statue of former governor “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. Their protest featured the “Stepdaughters of the Confederacy,” women constumed as streaming Southern belles playing “Dixie” on kazoos and carrying placards with such slogans as “Working to keep South Carolina bass-ackward since 1860.”
All in all, police estimated that about 1,000 protesters (mostly black) took part in the NAACP silent march, and about half that number (mostly but not exclusively white) marched carrying Confederate banners or wearing Confederate uniforms. A tall, lanky black man wearing a Confederate hat and carrying a small Confederate flag wandered through the crowd telling onlookers that the more he had studied the Confederacy, “the more I loved the Confederate battle flag, and the more I loved the South.” Flag supporters, gushing “thank you, sir,” and “God bless you,” came up to shake his hand and have their pictures made with him. But the more common scene throughout the day were demonstrators for and against the flag standing face-to-face, chest-to-chest, and hurling verbal assaults at one another. Several times it appeared that violence might erupt any minute, and law enforcement officers had to separate the squabbling groups repeatedly. But there was only one arrest--for shoving.
“This is a momentous weekend,” exulted Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, a prominent crusader for lowering the flag. “After all these years of paralysis,” he stated, “the people of South Carolina finally rose up at the grass roots and got their representatives to respect their wishes. This state really can control its own destiny, and now we can get to education and everything else we put aside.” But others were less pleased. “It's a sad day for all of us.” noted the president of the Council of Conservative Citizens, who was unhappy that the old flag was removed from the dome. “This is not a good day,” agreed the President of the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, who was unhappy that the new flag was raised at the monument. Some were downright furious. “The Confederate flag is a test of our endurance and our tolerance,” declared one African-American speaker. “This flag represents the most inhumane injustice ever known to the human race, yet there are those here today who say that it is a glorious thing and we should praise it.” The President of the Confederate States of America Historical Preservation Society threatened, “If you don't like the flag, you ain't seen nothing yet.” But still others responded with less venom. Debbie Strother of Columbia, one of the silent marchers past the Confederate Monument, who said she was “pleased to see that that flag is very small, very small,” adding, “I like that.”
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In the aftermath, leaders on both sides seemed to have lost some of their influence. The ranks of the so-called “heritage groups,” who had failed in their own “Lost Cause,” were increasingly torn by internal dissension. Ronnie Wilson, national lieutenant commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, complained that “we're not happy at all with the sellout of [Senators] Arthur Ravenel and Glenn McConnell.” Officers hinted to McConnell and Ravenel that they would not be welcome at the group's Charleston meeting, the first in that city since the Civil War Centennial. Both men were lifetime members of the organization with long records of support for the Confederate heritage. But they were also members of the South Carolina legislature who had helped craft the compromise and who had provided key votes in its passage. Ravenel was originally set to speak to the organization during a harbor cruise, but he backed out, saying that “my camp got word that said some people would be upset if I was there.” McConnell was scheduled to speak on the Confederate submarine Hunley, but he also cancelled. “I didn't want my participation to spoil the event,” he explained. Not only was there disarray within the SCV, but heritage organizations in general were increasingly being publicized as hate groups. “They're trying to equate us with the (Ku Klux) Klan,” complained one leader, “and we're not.” In response, the Southern Heritage Coalition called for massive demonstrations along the lines of the Million Man March (but with Confederate flags). The first target was the NAACP national convention in Baltimore. But only eighteen demonstrators showed up. The Coalition paid $2000 to rent an airplane for two days to fly over the Republican National Convention with banners charging that the G.O.P. were “turncoats.” But bad weather kept the plane grounded.
On the other side, the NAACP's rejection of the compromise came under much editorial criticism. “What did the NAACP ask for July 12?” questioned the Myrtle Beach Sun News, referring to the organization's S.C. boycott resolution a year earlier. According to the Sun News, the Confederate Soldier Monument was “certainly 'a place of historical rather than sovereign context.'” Thus “the NAACP won its point” and was entitled to “a legitimate share of the spotlight,” but should now move on to other issues.
The NAACP was also rent with internal dissensions. At the national convention President and CEO Kweisi Mfume denounced the black legislators who had supported the compromise. Senator Kay Patterson, who had fought to get the flag down since 1973, was deeply offended. His friend, Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, then Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, declared that he was “shocked and dismayed” at Mfume's “unfortunate diatribe.” He said that he and Patterson “are both of the same school. Often we meet unfair criticism with silence, but when we do respond we tend to do so in kind.” While he was “not pleased with the location of the flag,” he believed that its location “fits within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's resolution calling for the flag to be put in ‘a place of historic rather than sovereign context.’” He pointed out that “none of us who have been involved in this issue for decades . . . ever argued for the flag to be removed from the Statehouse grounds altogether, nor did the NAACP's 1999 resolution.” Clyburn added that, although he considered the lowering of the flag from the dome to be “a significant victory for the NAACP and South Carolina,” he still hoped “that the compromise is an interim one.”
There was an ironic conjunction on the eve of the flag's lowering when the Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot, filmed in South Carolina and vaguely concocted from the exploits of General Francis Marion, held its world premier in Columbia. Once more pundits of the national media scrutinized South Carolina, though this time the publicity was overwhelmingly favorable. Conservative political columnist George Will described watching the fictionalized biography of General Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” as revisiting “mankind's finest moment.” He failed to note the great paradox that South Carolina's role in creating the new nation was more than offset by its role a few decades later in shattering it.
Since long before secession, South Carolinians have lived with a national reputation for racism, lasting over so many decades that many have become inured to it. So one of the sweetest ironies in the whole controversy was that, on May 11, the day that lawmakers took the final vote making South Carolina one of the last states in the union to take down the “Confederate” flag, the legislature also held a ground-breaking ceremony on the lawn of the State House making South Carolina the first state in the union ever to erect a monument in honor of its African-American citizens.
While removal of the flag from the dome did appear to be a promising start toward a solution, the compromise did not (and probably could not) satisfy what were in fact irreconcilable positions. Those South Carolinians to whom the flag symbolizes Southern heritage and identity and commemorates the fallen heroes of the Confederacy are unlikely to be happy with replacing it with another flag (even if it is more historically accurate) and moving it to a place of “historic” rather than “sovereign” significance. And those South Carolinians to whom the ersatz “rebel flag” symbolizes the slavery and segregation that have shamed too much of the state’s past are unlikely to be happy with replacing it with the official emblem of a nation created for the specific purpose of perpetuating slavery. It remains a contest over South Carolina's symbols, and thus over our identity, over who should be considered insiders--we--and who should be considered outsiders--they. Black Carolinians are unwilling to be defined once again as outsiders. To others, the Confederate flag may genuinely symbolize heritage, not hate. But the flag’s symbolic meaning could no longer be detached from its history as an explicitly pro-slavery and anti-civil rights emblem.
This is not to assume that conflict is now the only feasible outcome, that accommodations between “traditionalists” and “reconstructionists” are impossible. Both sides would do well to heed Congressman Clyburn’s advice that “we should all step back from the issue and take a deep breath. “Both sides,” he suggests, “should declare a moratorium and give our state and neighbors a chance to heal from this bruising battle and reconcile with each other.”
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For many flag supporters, to a degree difficult for outsiders to understand, the fate of the Confederate battle flag is inherently bound up with their belief in the traditional ethic of Southern honor. According to Bertram Wyatt-Brown, its leading scholar, the honor ethic is less about integrity of character than about public assertion of an ascribed status, more about being honored than being honorable. Whatever one's inner feelings, one's honor rests upon popular approval. It is “inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement.” As nineteenth-century slaveholders saw it, hierarchy required slaveholding. Their right to hold human property and dispose of it as they saw fit was thus sacred and intractable, and central to their honor. As they saw it, they must either own slaves or be slaves. Honor required that vile Yankee slanders about sinful Southerners be vindicated in blood on the battlefield. In their eyes, Appomattox symbolized the loss of all save honor.
Many contemporary flag supporters see the Confederate battle flag as the outward expression of their own claim to a Southern identity rooted in honor and baptized in the blood of Confederate martyrs. To them the fate of the Confederate flag cannot be separated from the fate of Southern honor. They see popular support of the flag as the community consensus upholding their own honor. Conversely, they see popular rejection of the as a dishonorable insult to their heritage and heroic ancestors.
This popular version of Southern history derives less from the documented studies of historians than from folk memories passed on through generations of oral tradition. But such memories signify more than a series of recollected happenings; they constitute for many the very source of identity. This is why so many Southern memories start with the Civil War, a war that ended in a disastrous defeat for the states that seceded and sought to establish an independent nation. People reveal themselves more in how they respond to defeat than in how they respond to victory. The reconstruction of identity normally requires the invention of new traditions; and after Appomattox, white Southerners turned the shame of loss into the pride of achievement by constructing an “Old South” and a “War Between the States” that never existed before their post-traumatic fantasy. The Revisionist Southern Version of the Civil War (RSV) is aptly summarized by David Blight in Race and Reunion: slavery “was good while it lasted, good once it was gone; no Southerner fought in its defense and no Northerner died to end it.”
So congenial was this myth for so many white Southerners--and so lacking in any competing narrative in the region for so many years--that it caught several generations of white Southerners in a web of historical fictions and falsehoods. Embodied in Confederate symbols and images, these falsehoods defined their identity. But white Southerners paid a heavy price for the dubious gift of prefabricated identity and hereditary honor. Because the myth denied them moral insight into the conflict at the heart of Southern history--the paradox of human bondage in a nation founded on a commitment to human freedom--it also denied them access to a deeper and more authentic Southern identity, one rooted in a past more complex and more profound and therefore closer to the truth. Still, people whose identities are rooted in historical falsehoods are apt to defend those falsehoods as fiercely as if they were true.
The Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina did promote a certain amount of soul-searching among both black and white Carolinians, beginning a process that in the long run may well be more significant than the ultimate fate of the flag itself. For the flag is the symbol of a basic problem that remains unresolved. Will black and white Southerners continue to embrace separate and divisive histories? Or can Southerners of both races come to accept and deal with the history they share? It is a painful history, a long tragic legacy of blacks and whites harnessed together in slavery and segregation, in guilt rather than innocence, in defeat rather than victory, in failure rather than success. But it is also a history rich, invaluable in experience, shared by Southerners of both races--and by no other Americans. It is a history that unites us more than it divides us, because it is the history of a great culture that black and white Southerners have created together, a culture of folk and feeling: the rich and instructive humor of our folk tales; the haunting cadences of our majestic spirituals, our stately ballads, and our doleful but defiant blues; the awesome virtuosity of our jazz and bluegrass artists; and the magnificent body of literature created by Southern writers. Together these cultural expressions reveal the visions and values by which our people have lived and provide insight into the very essence of the South and southern history. It is a history that enables Southerners--regardless of race--to treasure the best of our heritage without having to deny or defend the worst, and to be proud without being blind. It is a history that we can all learn from--not only from our achievements, but perhaps especially from our mistakes and from our missed opportunities. It is a history that we can build on, if we will.
Historian Charles Joyner is best known for his study of the rice plantations in South Carolina, Down by the Riverside. It won the National University Press Book Award and was cited as “the finest work ever written on American slavery.” A fellow of the Society of American Historians, he also wrote Shared Traditions and other books. He holds two earned doctorates and taught at Berkeley, Old Miss, and Australia’s University of Sydney. He has been a close friend of Walter Edgar since the 1970s.