During the presidential election of 2004, Democratic candidate Howard Dean told a reporter, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”
Twelve years later and it is very difficult to envision a presidential candidate appealing to this same demographic with references to the Confederate flag without having to deal with the legacy of slavery and racism. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have spoken out publicly against the display of the flag and just yesterday the House of Representatives voted 265 to 164 (with 84 Republicans joining almost all Democrats) to ban the Confederate battle flag from display in all Veterans Administration cemeteries. An exception was included to allow for small flags to be displayed on individual graves only on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), who proposed the amendment, spoke for many when he asked, “Why in the year 2016 are we still condoning displays of this hateful symbol on our sacred national cemeteries?”
The House vote caps off a year of the most sustained pushback against the public display of the Confederate battle flag throughout much of the country—especially in the South—since the violent shootings in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. In addition to banning the display of the flag, a number of communities, including New Orleans, Baltimore, Louisville, and Charlottesville, have passed or are considering legislation for the removal of monuments to the Confederacy. This pushback has enjoyed a good deal of bipartisan support on the local and state levels. It was Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who set the ball rolling with her call to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C., just shortly after the Charleston shootings, followed by an order to remove four flags from Alabama’s state capitol grounds by another Republican governor.
A few Republican-controlled state legislatures—notably in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia—have attempted to stem this tide, but they will likely remain on the defensive with fewer and fewer elected leaders running openly on their record defending symbols of the Confederacy. Even Mississippi, which is the only state that still includes the Confederate battle flag in its design, is now dealing with the embarrassment of seeing colleges, universities, and even local municipalities remove it from their grounds. What happened?
By the turn of the 20th century, the Confederate battle flag became part of a tenuous movement toward sectional reconciliation between North and South. Confederate veterans displayed their battle flags proudly at their own reunions and other public events throughout the South to remind their communities of their brave struggle and to unify a new generation of white Southerners around a set of shared values. Flags were on full display even during reunions with their one-time enemies, including the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1913, which was organized by the federal government. Confederate veterans unfurled their flags as a sign of their dual loyalty to their Lost Cause and the United States. Auxiliary organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) and United Daughters of the Confederacy carefully regulated the display of the battle flag in an attempt to control its meaning.
Apart from scattered public pronouncements the Confederate battle flag was recognized as a soldiers flag that had little to do with the Confederacy’s explicit goal of establishing an independent slaveholding republic that protected white supremacy. After all, by the beginning of the 20th century former Confederate states achieved in defeat what they could not achieve through war: governments that enshrined white supremacy through the passage of Jim Crow laws that resulted in the disfranchisement of the vast majority of black citizens. Confederate monuments and flags served merely as window dressing.
The first cracks in this consensus took place with the embrace of the battle flag by Southern “Dixiecrats” in 1948, who, according to presidential nominee Strom Thurmond, believed the federal government intended to “break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theaters, our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” The battle flag emerged as one of the most popular symbols of “massive resistance” throughout the Civil Rights Movement. White Southerners did not so much re-interpret the meaning of the flag as much as they re-discovered a meaning that had always been present going back to the war itself.
The battle flag’s prominent place as a symbol of white resistance during the Civil Rights era has made it difficult for those who would have the public see it merely as a soldiers’ flag. Confederate heritage organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans have attempted to adjust to this new reality by promoting stories of loyal slaves, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews as a means to distance itself from the centrality of slavery and promote a theme of inclusiveness for a population that is now much more racially and ethnically diverse. The most recent celebration of Confederate Memorial Day in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery—the birthplace of secession and rebellion—suggests that their efforts have enjoyed little success. Roughly 50 people—most of whom are older—took part in this ceremony while low attendance elsewhere points to a bleak future for those who believe that the Confederate soldier and his flag still has lessons to impart to the community.
The larger problem for Confederate heritage advocates is that the flag itself has been accommodated by so many people and for so many different reasons that from a certain perspective it has been all but rendered meaningless.
Before George Zimmerman auctioned off the gun that killed Trayvon Martin, he offered up for sale his own painting of a Confederate battle flag to raise money for a “Muslim-free” gun store.
This month H.K. Edgerton, a former black president of an NAACP chapter in North Carolina, is walking through Florida with a battle flag on what he is calling a Southern Cross Revival March to promote Confederate heritage.
And just this past week, Cody Nelson, a high school senior in Minnesota, was suspended from school just days before his graduation for displaying a Confederate flag on his car. Cody and his parents defended his actions as a reflection of his Southern pride. One can only imagine what Confederate veterans might make of these flag embraces.
It is likely that the Senate will follow the House’s vote on Confederate flag at VA cemeteries and limit even further the right to display it on public property. We may not be far from a time when the only place that you can display a Confederate battle flag is on the back of a pickup truck.
Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012) and is at work on Searching For Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.