[ July 29, 2015 — Added clarification regarding the distinction between the Confederate and Rebel flags. ]
We’re all aware of the debate around the Confederate flag. Progressives argue that it’s a symbol of racism, and its defenders say it’s a harmless, non-racist icon of their heritage. People argue back and forth, but there’s never seemed to be any convincing evidence one way or the other. But now there is.
Here’s what William Thompson said about the Confederate flag, and we should listen, since he was the one who created not only its design but its symbolism and purpose. Here he is quoted in the book Our Flag, by George Preble:
As a people we are fighting to maintain the heavenly ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.
This is for the official Confederate flag, which was accepted by the Confederacy, and which incorporated the Rebel flag we all recognize today.
Such a flag would be a suitable emblem of our young confederacy, and sustained by the brave hearts and strong arms of the south, it would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized wold as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.
So yes, the Confederate flag symbolizes racism. It’s not a gentle association, or one that grew over time. It was created explicitly and transparently to be a symbol of white superiority over blacks, and to be the international symbol for a White South.
But the flag we see today is the Rebel flag, not the Confederate flag!
Many like to argue that the tie between Thompson’s flag and today’s “Confederate” flag is broken, since the flag we see today is actually the Rebel flag. But this ignores a few key points:
- The confederacy accepted Thompson’s design, and only abandoned it later when people complained the white version was mistaken for surrender
- The Rebel flag was part of that design
- The Rebel flag was mostly forgotten and unused until the KKK and the Dixiecrats resurrected it in 1948 as part of their white-supremacy-based campaigns for power
If this is not convincing to you, consider what the Vice President of the Confederate government said in the Cornerstone Address, specifically addressing America’s belief that all men are created equal:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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. ~ Alexander Stephens
So, yes, the flag (and the government itself) stands for and symbolizes racism regardless of how you look at it. If the flag also means other things to certain Southerners, that’s fine. If it means standing up to the North, or being rebellious, so be it. I hear those claims, and I believe them.
But this does not erase its enduring power as beacon of racism. Just as we cannot wear Nazi memorabilia and claim it represents military discipline and nation pride, we also cannot display a Confederate flag and claim it means sweet tea and Southern solidarity.
Whatever else it is, the flag is an overt symbol of racism, and we should take it down.