It seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time. On July 10, 2015 a Confederate battle flag that had first flown atop the State Capitol and then on the State House grounds in Columbia, South Carolina was lowered and moved to the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum, where it would be displayed and interpreted for the general public. Five months later, cost estimates in the millions necessary for a proper exhibit and expansion of museum space have politicians and others questioning whether it is worth spending all that money to preserve a $52 nylon Confederate flag. But even if state officials find a way to move forward they will have to confront the thorny question of how the flag should be interpreted. This will likely be just as controversial and perhaps even insurmountable.
Even Republican State Representative Chris Corley, who earlier this month made news when he sent out a Christmas card featuring the battle flag flying atop the state capitol, voiced the concerns of many on both sides of the political aisle when he concluded that spending a lot of money displaying the flag “is irresponsible when we have so much flood damage and we have so many crumbling roads." A reduction in initial cost estimates from $5.3 million to $3.7 million has not quelled opposition to a plan that helped to make possible the lowering of the flag this past summer. Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP described the plan as "a waste." Not surprisingly, Terry Hughey, a commander for the Columbia-based Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton Camp of the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans hopes to see the plan move forward in the coming year: "As tragic as that flood was, we keep forgetting about the 28,000-plus who died for a cause the state of South Carolina asked them to commit to."
Hughey's comment raises the crucial question of what history about this particular battle flag ought to be shared with the general public in a museum setting.
The Confederate battle flag that flew atop the South Carolina State House until 2001 was raised on April 11, 1961 to mark the beginning of the state's celebration of the centennial of the Civil War and the anniversary of the 1861 firing at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The historical record is unclear as to the motivation behind its display, since it was not until the following year that Representative John A. May introduced the resolution authorizing the flying of the flag. The flag was originally only supposed to fly for one year, but the resolution that was eventually passed failed to include a specific date for its removal. The flag raising, however, did not occur without controversy.
That very same week Charleston welcomed representatives from around the country for the annual meeting of the national Civil War Centennial Commission. African-American delegates from New Jersey and Missouri were prevented from entering the Francis Marion Hotel, where the event was to be held, owing to the hotel's segregation policies. A public relations fiasco was avoided with a last-minute decision and assistance by the Kennedy administration to move the proceedings to a federal military facility outside Charleston. In what became known as the "second battle of Fort Sumter," South Carolina's centennial commission promptly bolted from the national meeting and held their own in the hotel ballroom of the Francis Marion, which was decorated throughout with Confederate flags.
State Senator John D. Long, who was also responsible for the placement of the battle flag atop the State Capitol, helped to frame the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction for the now excited and rebellious audience: "Out of the dust and ashes of War with its attendant destruction and woe, came Reconstruction more insidious than war and equally evil in consequences, until the prostrate South staggered to her knees assisted by the original Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts who redeemed the South and restored her to her own." Senator and states' rights Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond extended Long's lesson in history to the present by reminding the audience that nowhere in the Constitution "does it hint a purpose to insure equality of man or things." "I am proud of the job that South Carolina is doing," asserted Thurmond in the midst of daily reminders of sit-ins, bus boycotts, and civil rights marches, "and I urge that we continue in this great tradition no matter how much outside agitation may be brought to bear on our people and our state."
For many former Confederate states, the Civil War centennial was as much about maintaining white supremacy and resisting the power of the federal government in the 1960s as it was about the events of 1861-1865 and beyond. A proper interpretation of the Confederate battle flag lowered over the summer must include this story if the general public has any chance of understanding its history. The Confederate Relic Room employs a staff that is trained to properly interpret this flag, but it is not at all clear whether they will be allowed to do so.
The bill authorizing removal of the flag stipulates only that the director of the Relic Room will include the battle flag "in an appropriate, permanent, and public display honoring South Carolina soldiers killed during the Civil War." "This flag," the bill goes on to outline, "must be displayed alongside other distinguished military exhibits covering the Civil War." The intention is clear. The flag's history will be confined to 1861-1865, even though the artifact itself never led men into battle and has no physical connection to the war itself compared to the other objects that will eventually surround it.
One can only hope that among the original documents to be displayed will be the "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union" (1860):
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
This is the salient historical link between the views expressed by Strom Thurmond in 1961, in a room festooned with Confederate flags, and the creation of a new government committed to slaveholding and white supremacy in 1861 along with the soldiers from South Carolina who fought and died to make it a reality.
Failure to provide a full and honest interpretation of this flag runs the risk of leaving the public with a gross distortion of the past and re-opening old wounds, this time at substantial costs to taxpayers.
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 currently 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.