If you’ve romanticized the Old South, if you refer to the Civil War as the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression, if you rhapsodize about the treacly mythology of the Lost Cause, stop reading now lest your romantic blood boil.
Lower the Confederate battle flag — from the official places of reverence across the Deep South, from your front porch and the back window of your pickup, from your bumpers and dorm rooms and belt buckles and ball caps. Fold it up and place it in a museum like Germany did with the Nazi swastika, along with the other signs — Whites Only, Colored Entrance, etc. — of the Jim Crow South.
The nauseatingly familiar Confederate battle flag — the one Alabama’s governor in late June ordered removed from the state capitol grounds; the one a number of big-box retailers including Walmart, Target and Amazon say they’ll no longer sell; the one that comprises a quarter of Mississippi’s state flag; the one by which the racist Charleston murderer whose name doesn’t merit mention was so enamored — has for more than half a century been about racism, about fighting segregation and voting rights for blacks.
Context matters, and the context in which the battle flag proliferated across the South is one of racism, because in general it didn’t fly throughout the former Confederacy until the Civil Rights Movement a half century ago. That’s not a coincidence. It’s the context.
In South Carolina, for instance, where the General Assembly will debate removing a Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds, the battle flag didn’t fly until 1962. It’s a similar scenario across Dixie: the battle flag wasn’t raised until all those uppity negroes started agitating for equal rights, for equal access to public services and accommodations.
It was push-back, a declaration that change and modernity and pluralism are not to be countenanced. The Old South chose a battle flag because the Civil Rights Movement was war. Context matters.
The official Confederate flag, the less-known “Stars and Bars” that even most Southerners wouldn’t recognize, flies at several official locations throughout Baton Rouge. But it’s one among several banners of governments that ruled Baton Rouge over the last two-plus centuries — Spain, France, the Republic of West Florida, Louisiana, the United States, the Confederate States of America. It isn’t controversial — and shouldn’t be — because it flies in historical context.
Revisionists and apologists have romanticized the casus belli since before the Battle of Appomatox Court House, which effectively ended the Civil War. But every state that seceded and bothered to declare why argued that slavery was a chief reason for the conflict, and the wealthy, conservative planter class, reading their tea leaves as the abolitionist Republicans (the liberals of their day, mind you) gained electoral traction, stoked fear among poor, non-slave-owning whites across the South that if slavery ended, chaos and economic competition from newly freed slaves would ravage the homeland. Virtually everyone who suited up in gray knew what the war was about: preserving a way of life. And indeed it was — preserving an economy built on the backs of black men and black women. Backs that were often striped by an overseer’s whip.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, has gone one step further and proposed replacing some prominent monuments to Confederate heroes in the Crescent City. Maybe that’s an over-reaction. Maybe not. But there can be little argument that in the decades following the war, across the former Confederacy, monuments and mythology arose in an effort to both mute the real reason for the war and to ameliorate the sting of defeat.
Listen to a “Mrs. Youree” of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the April 7, 1922, unveiling of the marble monument to Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton in Downtown Lafayette, as reported by The Daily Advertiser: “In honoring General Mouton we are honoring ourselves, for we are today perpetuating the very best that has been achieved by our great and truly noble Southern race.” The Lafayette Concert Band, according to the account, performed “Dixie” at the unveiling.
It’s time to retire the notion that the Civil War wasn’t about the enslavement of humans and the battle flag isn’t either an exclamation or intimation of racism. That is our context today.