When my thoughts turned recently to the renewed debate about the Confederate flag and its place in American life, I did what I often do in times of intellectual perplexity. I called my mother. Mama would never consider herself an intellectual or a cultural critic. A woman of modest education, she has always left the headier things to those who, as she would say, “know their way ’round the books.” All of my life, she has counted me among that number. What Mama has and I don’t, however, is the wit that comes from a youth spent serving silently and nearly invisible in the homes of white families. What Mama has is the wisdom that comes from surviving economic depression, the psychic trauma of migration from the rural South to the urban upper South, and raising fifteen children on deplorably low wages. For all her eighty years, Mama, in the tradition of many black preachers, has the ability to “explain the unexplainable, discern the indiscernible, and unscrew the inscrutable.” So, I called her.
But just like so many times before, I didn’t get exactly what I was looking for from Mama, only to get much more than I expected. I was looking for a scary story, some highly dramatic personal account that involved a night of terror when the hooded, flag-bearing ambassadors of white supremacy ramshackled the black section of town, breaking windows and lighting fires. Or, I was expecting a story about Mama being forced to help the white woman for whom she worked mend the family battle flag as the woman reminisced about the glorious white past. I was also looking for something definitive from this woman of deep faith, something that would silence the debate and grant me a moral refuge, something like “the Confederate flag is bad.” I got none of this. In fact, to my astonishment, Mama had never seen the Confederate flag and didn’t know what it was. When I explained it to her, she began to tell me how it could be possible that she had never seen the flag. And it was here that the conversation transformed. A talk between mother and son that was supposed to ease my tensions over this heated cultural conflict (while legitimizing my rage) became one about a less subtle form of racial tyranny, as well as one ultimately about Mama’s hope for racial peace.
Mama suggested that she had never seen the Confederate flag during her years in the South because the community in which she lived was strictly segregated, and few people, black or white, ever “crossed the line.” The only occasion she would have to see the flag, she surmised, was when someone “stepped out of place,” necessitating a show of force and racial dominance. Few people ever dared to do that, and the one time she could remember when someone did step out of place, the man died for it. It was after the Second World War, and A.T. Reed, an African-American soldier, was back home in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Not long after his return, a fellow soldier introduced him to a white woman. Reed and the woman apparently liked each other and started a clandestine relationship. A few months later, however, the relationship began to deteriorate under pressure. One night Reed went to the woman’s home in an attempt to speak with her, perhaps to reconcile. The attempt failed. The woman later claimed she was raped, and an all-white jury found Reed guilty, sentencing him to death. Mama’s weakening voice cracked as she told me this. I began to feel grateful that she had never “stepped out of place,” and had never had occasion to see the Confederate flag. I envied her innocence.
At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but think of all Mama wouldn’t know because of her innocence, things critical to know in order to deftly navigate the current debate. She wouldn’t know that the Confederate flag has a history and a revised history. She wouldn’t know that the flag is central to the iconography of a southern civil religion, or that there is an inexorable connection between the flag, slavery, and Jim Crow. Mama continued to talk while my mind trailed off to think about these things.
I thought about how the history of the Confederate flag, or the “Stars and Bars,” is the stuff of typical high school textbooks, while its revised history resides (perhaps more securely) in the realm of public memory. The eleven states of the Confederacy adopted the flag as the symbol of their “nation within a nation” in 1861. Believing that the election of Abraham Lincoln threatened their slaveholding way of life and reinforced northern power, the Confederate states seceded from the union, formed their own government, and chose a national leader. No new government being complete without a national symbol, the “Stars and Bars” became that symbol. The revisionist history of the flag is another matter. In this history there is little or no mention of slavery. In fact, some revisionists insist that the Civil War was not about slavery; it was about states rights, southern culture and southern heritage. The Union, they say, was a voluntary association of states, and the Constitution granted each state the right to secede at will. Instead of committing treason, the seceding states acted within their rights, and it was only their rights they wanted to protect.
This different level of meaning attributed to the southern cause in the Civil War has opened up new levels of meaning that some now attribute to the Confederate flag. The most ubiquitous response given by those in support of prominent displays of the flag has been, “it’s not hate, it’s heritage.” Proponents of this view hold that it is out of respect for a distinct southern culture and heritage that the flag should fly. Those who wish it to fly over State houses and other government buildings only want to honor this particular culture and heritage. But this isn’t the case, is it? After the South’s defeat, their national symbol became a relic of the past, a symbol of that defeat. It only surfaced during times of memorial and when white racists wanted to reinforce segregation and make a show of white supremacy. Public and more prominent displays of the Confederate flag only began in the late 1950s and early 1960s and, significantly enough, always during times when the notion of white supremacy was the most vulnerable. It is not inconsequential that the flag began to have a much higher profile in American public life at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Georgia raised the flag over its State house in 1956, just two years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. State officials hoisted the flag over the South Carolina State house in 1962, ostensibly to celebrate the centennial of the Civil War. It was meant to be temporary, but the flag stayed there until it was recently removed after the entire state came under enormous pressure. The University of Mississippi, which had adopted the flag as its symbol years earlier, waved it defiantly in 1962 as the student body and much of the administration protested the admission of James Meredith. Governor George Wallace raised the Confederate flag over the Alabama State house in 1963 after a vitriolic confrontation with Robert Kennedy over integration (Thornton 236). Those who argue that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of hate but of southern heritage must mean a white southern heritage. There are millions of black Americans who claim a southern heritage that find the flag offensive for all the ways it is used to reinforce notions of white authority and superiority. Southern history is American history, and proponents of the flag don’t get to exclusively decide the flag’s full meaning. For many black Americans it is not heritage, it is hate.
But then I began to think of a way the Confederate flag could legitimately be considered central to a distinct southern culture and heritage–as a religious symbol. National symbols often become religious symbols in the way that religious symbols often become national symbols. One need only think of the Christian cross. In the aftermath of the Civil War the “Stars and Bars,” the national symbol of the Confederacy, became an important icon in the “religion of the lost cause” (Wilson). As religion often brings order where there is social disorder, a southern civil religion arose that gave meaning to many white southerners who were attempting to rebuild their lives and to restore their shattered society. The Confederate flag became central to this southern civil religion, operating as a part of what Charles Reagan Wilson would call a “sacred symbol system” (Wilson 221 and Geertz). And the flag was not the only feature to this highly organized and ritualistic “sacred symbol system.” Confederate war heroes such as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis were (and still are) nearly worshipped by many white southerners. Monument Boulevard in Richmond, Virginia, exists as a type of sacred space devoted to these men. War relics were revered with a devotion worthy of any religious object of antiquity. Confederate institutions like the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were imbued with a religious ethos. There were even Confederate hymns, some of which memorialized the lives and the deaths of Confederate heroes. After the Civil War, white southerners closely connected religion and southern culture, and the Confederate flag was the central sacred object in the civil religion they created.
For all the value the Confederate flag may have held for white southerners as a religious object, however, there is now and always has been an inexorable connection between the flag, slavery, and Jim Crow. There is no such thing as a benign symbol, whether national or religious. And this symbol has come to represent powerful and oppressive ideas. The Confederate flag can no more be disentangled from the history of slavery in America than can the Swastika from Nazism. How would ordinary German citizens who wanted to reclaim the Swastika as a legitimate part of German history be perceived? Could they declare, “it’s not hate, it’s heritage”? No, that would be unthinkable, and rightly so. Neither can the Confederate flag be disentangled from slavery and Jim Crow ideals. It has come to represent a history of black oppression, racial division, and the myth of white superiority. And it reinforces those ideals whether atop a State house or attached to the hood of a car. That is the flag’s history, that is its legacy; that is its past, and unquestionably its future. [End Page 16]
I turned my attention back to my mother who was now talking about how things changed in the South when Martin Luther King, Jr., came on the scene. King, she thought, had revolutionized the South and American race relations. She again astonished me, and I couldn’t tell if this were naiveté, her perception, or her hope. I decided that it was all three. The most pronounced of these was her hope. This hope cut through everything she was saying. She talked about how she has peace with her white neighbors in the predominately white community in which she lives, and about how the man across the street often drops by with small gifts of food for her. (Mama didn’t say this, but I happen to know that the man has yet to enter the house.) She then told me about a white family she knew from her youth and how she has kept in touch with them all these years. She also spoke about having recently received a letter from a “little white girl” she babysat for some time ago. The girl expressed a strong desire to once again see “Mama Queen”–(Mama’s given name is Queen Esther). My mother was thrilled with this letter and with this little girl. This was the familiar and amicable level of racial exchange she believed in. This was what she hoped for–racial peace and connectedness. She even said she believed that whites no longer wanted the type of racial troubles that mark our past history. “They don’t want that mess now,” she told me. Yes, this was Mama’s naiveté, her perception, and her hope. It was mostly her hope.
But I thought of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse, James Byrd’s dragged and viciously torn body, and the thousand pieces of “strange fruit” that have hung from southern trees in our recent past. I wondered if they or their families could share Mama’s hopefulness. I wondered if I could share Mama’s hopefulness. As we continued to talk, her non-experience with the Confederate flag suspended over us in sharp contrast to the millions of black Americans who have experienced the fury of the flag’s racist meaning. They know that it is a symbol that represents a particular, racially hierarchical vision of the past. They also know that it is a symbol that portends a future American society where bigotry and discrimination are sanctioned in the name of southern heritage. America is a long way from the racial connectedness that Mama sees, and the Confederate flag is a symbolic stopgap to any progress toward that end.
We concluded our conversation with my asking Mama if she would mind if government officials allowed the Confederate flag to fly freely in public places. I think she intuitively understood what this could mean for the America characterized by the racial peace she envisions. She sighed, “I hope they don’t do that.” Wise woman.
Wallace Best is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He recently received the PhD in American history at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He was born in North Carolina.
Geertz, Clifford J. “Religion as a Cultural System.” Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Ed. Michael Banton. New York, 1966.
Thornton, Kevin. “The Confederate Flag and the Meaning of Southern History.” Southern Cultures 2 (1996).
Wilson, Charles Reagan. “The Religion of the Lost Cause: Ritual and Organization of the Southern Civil Religion, 1865-1920.” The Journal of Southern History 46 (May 1980): 219-38.