The Confederate Flag and Racism: A Historian’s Perspective

In the wake of last week’s tragedy in South Carolina, Americans, including myself, have dealt with the situation in the best way we know how: posting about it on Facebook. Against the advice of my wife, I decided to get into a couple of online debates about the propriety of flying the flag, and came away each time saddened by the results. Then today, my friend sent me a picture of about a half dozen kids, some of them my former students, standing along Main Street waving Confederate flags at passing cars, and in the process confirming every stereotype that the flag supposedly does not stand for.

After reading numerous flag debates, a common theme appeared from those who defend the flying of the Confederate flag: “You need to go read your history.” My response to these people is: “Ok, sure! Which books would you recommend I start with?”


The problem with this line of thinking is that there have been untold numbers of books written from each side of the historiographical divide muddying up the topic over the past one-hundred-sixty years, and it can be a little difficult to ascertain what is true, and what is armchair historian crap, of which there is a bunch. Instead, let’s look at the original primary sources and see if we can understand why people are so offended by the Confederate flag, which represents nothing more than heritage and pride to others.
In December of 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Echoing the original colonies, South Carolina drafted a declaration of independence in which the state’s leaders justified their secession. According to the declaration, one cause of the rift was the election of a man “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Additionally, “they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery,” as well as “assume[d] the right of deciding upon the  of our domestic institutions.” In other words, South Carolina was leaving to protect slavery.

In March of 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the new Confederate States of AmAlexander_Stephenserica, gave a speech in Savannah, Georgia extolling the virtues of the new Confederate constitution. In this “Cornerstone Speech,” Stephens claimed that, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution– African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.” Furthermore, “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution,” according to Stephens. Finally, and most significantly, the Confederate constitution had “its foundations… laid, its corner- stone 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.” It should be noted that Stephens delivered this speech without notes, which suggests just how strongly he felt about his subject.

The Confederate Constitution itself is incredibly interesting. Ratified ten days before Stephens’s speech, it was nearly identical to the United States Constitution, with the single notable exception that it specifically clarified the status of slavery within the Confederacy. The new Constitution, supposedly created to protect states’ rights, even included a “necessary and proper” clause, which is the source of implied powers, completely invalidating the states’ rights defense of secession.

It is clear, then, why so many view the Confederate flag as a sign of white supremacy: those are its origins. Combined with its resurgence and usage in the early 1900s by the KKK, its adoption by the anti-civil rights Dixiecrat party in 1948 and its continued presence in racist propaganda, these sentiments can not be dismissed.

Why then, can so many people, many of my friends, former students, and coworkers… people that I have much love and respect for… proudly claim that it represents their heritage and not racism?

The answer is probably the longest and most tragic example of revisionist indoctrination that has ever occurred in this country.

Even before the Civil War ended, southern historians began to revise the origins of the Confederacy. This was prompted by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 in which the president officially changed the goals of the war from simple reunification into a crusade against slavery. They realized that the world, including European nations who might otherwise assist the Confederacy, would never support a war over slavery’s protection. As it turned out, they were right; Great Britain and France, who had been considering entering the war, changed their minds. In the long run, this change of war aims also became part of the Confederate histories, and in the past century and half has become truth to many people.

At the same time, thousands of poor Southerners fought in the war simply to preserve the status quo, which was the preservation of slavery and the culture that it created in the South. Southern political leaders pulled the wool over their eyes with the banner of states’ rights and protection of their homes. Unfortunately, most of them simply did not have any actual idea of why their states had seceded in the first place; they were too busy trying to make ends meet.

So, when people claim that the Confederate flag represents heritage and Southern pride, that is what it in fact means to them, without any intentional trace of racism. Unfortunately, for a significant amount of the American population, the flag has not undergone this metamorphosis over the decades, and still retains its original meaning of white supremacy, reinforced by years of violence, intimidation, Jim Crow laws, and segregation.

Not that this phenomena was limited to the South; Indiana had the most active KKK group in the 1990s, and Northern cities remain some of the most segregated places in the country.1024px-Flag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America_(Third,_variant).svg

Flag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America_(March_1861_–_May_1861).svgOf course, there are those that claim that the flag in question is not the Confederate national flag, but is actually the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This is an amazing case of splitting hairs, and not helpful to the conversation at all. But for the sake of argument, let’s look at this. If true, then the implication is that the battle flag is not guilty but the national flag, the one raised over Fort Sumter and whose design was subsequently revised, is. Further, since the baConfederate_Rebel_Flag.svgttle flag is that which the Confederate army fought under, it is almost worse given tFlag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America_(1863-1865).svghat the war resulted in the deaths of an estimated 600,000 and 800,000 Americans, and symbolizes very clearly the treason that is enumerated in the Constitution. I’m not sure the alternate flag argument is one worth having.

Others point out that the North was just as racist as the South, and in fact was just as complicit in slavery’s existence. While true in the early history of the Union, all states above the Ohio River outlawed slavery by 1849. The only slaves that remained were those that were, for lack of a better term, “grandfathered in.” Obviously, by twenty-first century standards this is still reprehensible, but was very progressive for the time. The states carved from the Northwest Territory never had slavery. Regardless, the sins of one section do no excuse the actions of another.

I read a Facebook comment from someone the other day in which he said that several northern states actually had legalized slavery during the Civil War, and wondered why no one ever mentioned that. The reason: because it’s untrue, and it is just bad history. The states in question were actually slave states that simply did not secede with the rest of the South, which is not the same thing. These states were actually the settings for some of the fiercest fighting in the war, as the South fought to bring them into the Confederacy, and the North fought desperately to keep them loyal.

Next week, South Carolina’s legislature will vote on whether or not to remove the flag from the State House grounds. Several other states, including Alabama and Mississippi, have taken similar steps. The general opinion in the country seems to be approval. I approve.

On the other hand, vocal minority groups with questionable motives, like the six flag wavers on Main Street, sustain the stereotype of the South from which we all are trying to escape. They have that right, but perhaps removing the Confederate flag from public grounds and buildings will help the rest of the nation see these fringe groups for what they are, that they don’t speak for the entire South, and we will be able to begin the healing process that is so overdue.

Perhaps the reason that this is all still such a sensitive topic is the simple fact that there are still people who have been abused by those flying the Confederate flag, including the recent tragedy in South Carolina. While slavery may be long dead, its legacy lives on in racist people, propaganda, and harassment, both North and South, an that is what this flag represents. As long as there are visible reminders of this legacy, it will continue on. While it is naive to think that its removal will solve racism, it would at least send the message that states are not condoning the actions of an ignorant few.


It’s also time to admit to ourselves that this flag has a horrible history, and though it has come to represent heritage and pride to some, it represents fear and oppression to many others. Ignoring this is like the ostrich hiding its head in the sand and pretending that there really isn’t anything wrong out there. Black/white relations is the most controversial and divisive topic in the history of the United States. Nothing else comes close with the possible exception of Native American relations. Why would we want a constant reminder of this flying from our government buildings?

One thought on “The Confederate Flag and Racism: A Historian’s Perspective

  1. As much controversy as this has caused, its nice to see someone who I am absolutely positive actually did their research. I enjoyed learning the truth behind it and I absolutely agree with your opinion. Thank you for doing your homework!


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