When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds, she offered that her state has a “tough history” on matters of race, and the flag is “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” At the same time, Haley offered a lifeline to those whites who embrace the rebel flag, legitimizing their love and respect for that symbol of the South. “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry,” the governor said.
“The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it. Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during a time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism,” she added.
The history behind the Confederate flag is clear, and it is not a noble one. From the beginning, as America’s own Nazi swastika, it has served as the logo for the sickness of white supremacy and a heritage of racial violence, a symbol of white domestic terrorism and the subjugation of Black people.
When South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union and the birthplace of the Civil War, the cause of the Confederacy was all about preserving African slavery and the rights of white people. The Confederate states seceded two months after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, an act that they viewed as a declaration of war against the South, a threat to Southern property and the downfall of slavery.
In 1861, politician Alexander H. Stephens repudiated the notion that the institution was morally wrong: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said. “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
The most prolonged usage of the Confederate flag took place in the 20th century. The battle flag became a symbol of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, an attempt to reframe the Civil War from the vantage point of the Confederacy in a positive light. That movement characterized the war as a matter of states’ rights rather than the preservation of slavery, and Reconstruction as an attempt by Northern aggressors to economically destroy the Southern way of life. Under the Confederate banner, the white South maintained Jim Crow segregation, the convict lease system and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan — which was founded by Confederate veterans — embraced the emblem as a symbol of terrorism and lynching against Black people.
In 1948, the States’ Rights Democratic Party, also known as the Dixiecrats, was formed when 35 Democratic delegates from Alabama and Mississippi broke from the Democratic National Convention, in response to Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s call for eliminating Jim Crow laws and embracing racial integration in the party platform. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina became the Dixiecrat candidate for president, and the party’s campaign slogan was “Segregation Forever!”
The Dixiecrats adopted the Confederate emblem, and in its party platform stated: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race…. We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program….We oppose and condemn the action of the Democratic convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting and local law enforcement.”
Following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which prohibited segregation in public schools, the Confederate battle flag became a symbol of state defiance and massive white resistance against civil rights. During this time, Southern states began to incorporate the Confederate emblem into their state flags and fly the battle flag on top of their state capitols. South Carolina, for example, did fly the Confederate flag until 1961. Georgia incorporated the Confederate logo in 1956 until a new flag was adopted in 2001. Today, seven state flags maintain a version of the Confederate flag or Confederate themes: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. Mississippi remains the only state that incorporates the Confederate battle logo in its official flag.
Meanwhile, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called the Confederate emblem in the Magnolia state’s flag “a point of offense that needs to be removed.” The lawmaker added, “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us.”