The tragic death of nine African-Americans in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, at the hands of a person who featured himself online holding a Confederate flag, has triggered a groundswell of outrage about the killings and the flag itself. A vigorous movement is under way to rescind sanction for display of the flag on official property and end retail sales of products that display these flag symbols.
In response to questions posed by the publication Civil War News in its August 2015 issue, John M. Coski, a historian at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va., elaborated on the flag issue. As author of “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem,” he spoke with considerable expertise on the subject.
Coski explained that widespread display of the Confederate flag across America stems from permission given in years past by the U.S. government and the American people to white Southerners “to celebrate and perpetuate the Confederate cause and Confederate heroes; [but] it also testifies to … the exclusion of African-American Southerners from public life after Reconstruction.”
In the years following the Civil War, black voices were raised in protest to the public display of the Confederate flag at such events as the dedication of the Robert E. Lee memorial in Richmond. By the mid-20th century, the flags became “pop culture symbols of ‘rebellion’ and as symbols of segregation and white supremacy.”
This is when a line was drawn between those who misused the flag for political or commercial purposes, and those who defended the flag on the basis of Confederate heritage. Coski stated that the latter group “spearheaded a wave of state laws prohibiting and punishing such acts.”
Nonetheless, by the 1980s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) campaigned to remove the Confederate flag from the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi, and from the capitol domes of Alabama and South Carolina. It took decades for the NAACP to achieve success but, with the exception of the Mississippi state flag, the others are now gone.
Those who see the Confederate flag as a heritage symbol have feared for some time that, once it can no longer be publicly displayed, the victorious campaigners against all things Confederate will begin to target numerous monuments and place names throughout the former Confederate states. Again, Coski finds that heritage supporters see this as a blow to the preservation of history and memory.
Here in Delaware, this latter view is exemplified by Jeffrey Plummer, commander of Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp #2068 based in Seaford. When asked to comment on the recent turmoil surrounding the Confederate flag, he forthrightly stated his disappointment “that a Confederate flag would be removed from a Confederate Soldiers Monument in South Carolina.”
Plummer maintains, “The Confederate flag has earned its place in American history, [because] 275,000 Americans fell under the Southern Cross defending their homes and family.” He bemoaned that display of the Confederate flag on license plates in Texas has “pushed viewpoint discrimination” to the [fore]front, which translates to lack of freedom of speech.” That was a reference to the recent Supreme Court decision allowing states, rather than individuals, to decide what symbols can be placed on automobile license plates.
Obviously, we have not heard the last of the controversy surrounding display of the Confederate flag. Coski predicted demographic changes throughout the country and the shrinking Southern population with Confederate ancestry will dictate whether pressure will be brought “to remove the Confederate flag and other symbols [totally] from the public landscape.”
Plummer, on the other hand, asserted that Confederate flags are “honorable symbols, and persons with Southern heritage have a rich lineage.” He urged them to “display their Confederate flag with pride.”
Disagreements about the Confederate flag have been ongoing for 150 years, and the challenging issue is not yet resolved. Compassion and compromise will be necessary to achieve an acceptable balance between history and heritage where the flag is concerned.