Heritage or hate: The history of the US Confederate Flag

  • Aditya Iyer, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 28, 2015 20:53 IST

The recent shootings at Charleston which saw nine African-Americans gunned down at a church have brought racism and lax gun control legislation to the forefront of political debate in the US once again.

As more and more people express outrage in the aftermath of Dylann Roof's attack, one symbol has come to define the racism that is believed to have motivated the shooter: The Confederate flag.

But why does a relic from the US Civil War of 1861-65 still provoke such strong feelings among all classes, political or otherwise?

It’s a rather strange quirk of history that the Confederate flag – which rouses such passionate debate, both in condemnation and in support of it – was never officially sanctioned.

Instead, the so-called "Southern Cross" that Roof was seen posing with, and that an activist was arrested for taking down in Columbia on Saturday, was the battle flag of the southern states of the US during the Civil War.

The original flag for the Confederate was meant to, in the words of its designer William T Thompson, symbolise the “Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or coloured race”.

Civil war shook the United States with the South rebelling against Abraham Lincoln's decision to abolish slavery. In its aftermath, with the slave-owning landlords of the southern states shattered and brought to heel under Washington, the flag one sees today became embraced as a way of expressing regional pride. And therein lies the crux of the matter.

Jon Stewart explains the hypocrisy surrounding the defense of the Confederate battle-flag

Some have argued, and continue to do so, that the flag which Gen Robert E Lee most notably fought under is an important expression of the independent culture of the southern portion of the US, hence its presence over official public buildings and certain monuments.

Others, however, claim this representation is merely whitewashing history; as President Barack Obama himself said while delivering the eulogy for the victims of Charleston on Saturday, the flag “was a reminder of systematic oppression and racial subjugation”.

It is precisely for this reason that the Confederate flag continues to garner sharp criticism, and remains a contentious symbol for a country that has been confronted by the ugly spectre of racism in the recent past.

Slavery, or rather the Union's distaste for it, was after all a significant reason why the southern states wished to secede in the first place. But how exactly did the flag re-emerge as a potent political symbol?

It began, perhaps counter-intuitively, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century. As African-Americans began to articulate their political desires and push for an end to discrimination, those who opposed them sought a potent symbol to mobilise against them.

Arguably, the first use of the “Southern Cross” in this manner was in 1948, when Strom Thurmond ran for president under the newly founded States Right Democratic Party, also known as the “Dixiecrats”.

And while desegregation progressed, the battle flag cropped up with more and more frequency; a sign perhaps, that this reminder of the divisive and unhappy past of the US had acquired a new political presence.

This, then, is the legacy of the battle flag of the southern states; a sharp reminder of the racism that has been an indelible part of America's socio-political conscience since its formation, and the reason why it has been under fire in the wake of Charleston and other racial attacks.

With the President calling for the flag to be taken down permanently from public places, and widespread condemnation of it, it looks like the Southern Cross' days might be finally numbered.

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