Much has been made about whether the Confederate flag is racist in the days after the mass shooting of the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Even as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called to remove the flag from the state Capitol's grounds, she gave credence to the idea that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of white supremacy and instead is a way to honor fallen soldiers and Southern heritage.
In the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a heavily researched post that should, hopefully, settle the dispute. He pointed to numerous writings from during and before the Civil War era — including some from Confederate leaders — that made it clear Southern states were seceding because they feared the North would take away their ability to enslave black people. Just read South Carolina's justification when it became the first state to secede after Abraham Lincoln's election:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
There's no mincing words in this statement. South Carolina specifically stated that it saw any attempts to abolish slavery and grant rights to black Americans as "hostile to the South" and "destructive of its beliefs and safety." So some people may feel they are simply honoring the dead of the Civil War by flying the Confederate flag, but the history laid out by Coates suggests blatantly racist connotations.
What This Cruel War Was Over
The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it.
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.
This examination should begin in South Carolina, the site of our present and past catastrophe. South Carolina was the first state to secede, two months after the election of Abraham Lincoln. It was in South Carolina that the Civil War began, when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter. The state’s casus belli was neither vague nor hard to comprehend:
...A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
In citing slavery, South Carolina was less an outlier than a leader, setting the tone for other states, including Mississippi:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…
As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.
Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.
...in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states....
None of this was new. In 1858, the eventual president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis threatened secession should a Republican be elected to the presidency:
I say to you here as I have said to the Democracy of New York, if it should ever come to pass that the Constitution shall be perverted to the destruction of our rights so that we shall have the mere right as a feeble minority unprotected by the barrier of the Constitution to give an ineffectual negative vote in the Halls of Congress, we shall then bear to the federal government the relation our colonial fathers did to the British crown, and if we are worthy of our lineage we will in that event redeem our rights even if it be through the process of revolution.
It is difficult for modern Americans to understand such militant commitment to the bondage of others. But at $3.5 billion, the four million enslaved African Americans in the South represented the country’s greatest financial asset. And the dollar amount does not hint at the force of enslavement as a social institution. By the onset of the Civil War, Southern slaveholders believed that African slavery was one of the great organizing institutions in world history, superior to the “free society” of the North.
From an 1856 issue of Alabama’s Muscogee Herald:
Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman's body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas.
The last sentence refers to the conflict over slavery between free-soilers and slave-holders. The conflict was not merely about the right to hold another human in bondage, but how that right created the foundation for white equality.
Jefferson Davis again:
You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.
Black slavery as the basis of white equality was a frequent theme for slaveholders. In his famous “Cotton Is King” speech, James Henry Hammond compared the alleged wage slavery of the North with black slavery—and white equality—in the South:
The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South.
We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations. Yours are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment of intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation.
On the eve of secession, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown concurred:
Among us the poor white laborer is respected as an equal. His family is treated with kindness, consideration and respect. He does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense of the term his equal. He feels and knows this. He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men. He black no masters boots, and bows the knee to no one save God alone. He receives higher wages for his labor than does the laborer of any other portion of the world, and he raises up his children with the knowledge, that they belong to no inferior cast, but that the highest members of the society in which he lives, will, if their conduct is good, respect and treat them as equals.
Thus in the minds of these Southern nationalists, the destruction of slavery would not merely mean the loss of property but the destruction of white equality, and thus of the peculiar Southern way of life:
If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.
Slaveholders were not modest about the perceived virtues of their way of life. In the years leading up to the Civil War, calls for expansion into the tropics reached a fever pitch, and slaveholders marveled at the possibility of spreading a new empire into central America:
Looking into the possibilities of the future, regarding the magnificent country of tropical America, which lies in the path of our destiny on this continent, we may see an empire as powerful and gorgeous as ever was pictured in our dreams of history. What is that empire? It is an empire founded on military ideas; representing the noble peculiarities of Southern civilization; including within its limits the isthmuses of America and the regenerated West Indies; having control of the two dominant staples of the world's commerce—cotton and sugar; possessing the highways of the world's commerce; surpassing all empires of the age in the strength of its geographical position; and, in short, combining elements of strength, prosperity, and glory, such as never before in the modern ages have been placed within the reach of a single government. What a splendid vision of empire!
How sublime in its associations! How noble and inspiriting the idea, that upon the strange theatre of tropical America, once, if we may believe the dimmer facts of history, crowned with magnificent empires and flashing cities and great temples, now covered with mute ruins, and trampled over by half-savages, the destiny of Southern civilization is to be consummated in a glory brighter even than that of old, the glory of an empire, controlling the commerce of the world, impregnable in its position, and representing in its internal structure the most harmonious of all the systems of modern civilization.
Edward Pollard, the journalist who wrote that book, titled it Black Diamonds Gathered In The Darkey Homes Of The South. Perhaps even this is too subtle. In 1858, Mississippi Senator Albert Gallatin Brown was clearer:
I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it. If the worm-eaten throne of Spain is willing to give it for a fair equivalent, well—if not, we must take it. I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican Stats; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery.
And a footing in Central America will powerfully aid us in acquiring those other states. It will render them less valuable to the other powers of the earth, and thereby diminish competition with us. Yes, I want these countries for the spread of slavery. I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth, and rebellious and wicked as the Yankees have been, I would even extend it to them.
I would not force it upon them, as I would not force religion upon them, but I would preach it to them, as I would preach the gospel. They are a stiff-necked and rebellious race, and I have little hope that they will receive the blessing, and I would therefore prepare for its spread to other more favored lands.
Thus in 1861, when the Civil War began, the Union did not face a peaceful Southern society wanting to be left alone. It faced an an aggressive power, a Genosha, an entire society based on the bondage of a third of its residents, with dreams of expanding its fields of the bondage further South. It faced the dream of a vast American empire of slavery. In January of 1861, three months before the Civil War commenced, Florida secessionists articulated the position directly:
At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property. This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of the Government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and driven on by an infuriated fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige or right growing out of property in slaves.
Gentlemen, the State of Florida is now a member of the Union under the power of the Government, so to go into the hands of this party.
As we stand our doom is decreed.
Not yet. As the Late Unpleasantness stretched from the predicted months into years, the very reason for the Confederacy’s existence came to threaten its diplomatic efforts. Fighting for slavery presented problems abroad, and so Confederate diplomats came up with the notion of emphasizing “states rights” over “slavery”—the first manifestation of what would later become a plank in the foundation of Lost Cause mythology.
The first people to question that mythology were themselves Confederates, distraught to find their motives downplayed or treated as embarassments. A Richmond-based newspaper offered the following:
‘The people of the South,’ says a contemporary, ‘are not fighting for slavery but for independence.’ Let us look into this matter. It is an easy task, we think, to show up this new-fangled heresy — a heresy calculated to do us no good, for it cannot deceive foreign statesmen nor peoples, nor mislead any one here nor in Yankeeland. . . Our doctrine is this: WE ARE FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE THAT OUR GREAT AND NECESSARY DOMESTIC INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY SHALL BE PRESERVED, and for the preservation of other institutions of which slavery is the groundwork.
Even after the war, as the Lost Cause rose, many veterans remained clear about why they had rallied to the Confederate flag. “I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery,” wrote Confederate commander John S. Mosby. The progeny of the Confederacy repeatedly invoked slavery as the war’s cause.
Here, for example, is Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams in 1904:
Local self-government temporarily destroyed may be recovered and ultimately retained. The other thing for which we fought is so complex in its composition, so delicate in its breath, so incomparable in its symmetry, that, being once destroyed, it is forever destroyed. This other thing for which we fought was the supremacy of the white man’s civilization in the country which he proudly claimed his own; “in the land which the Lord his God had given him;” founded upon the white man’s code of ethics, in sympathy with the white man’s traditions and ideals.
The Confederate Veteran—the official publication of the United Confederate Veterans—in 1906:
The kindliest relation that ever existed between the two races in this country, or that ever will, was the ante-bellum relation of master and slave—a relation of confidence and responsibility on the part of the master and of dependence and fidelity on the part of the slave.
The Confederate Veteran again in 1911:
The African, coming from a barbarous state and from a tropical climate, could not meet the demands for skilled labor in the factories of the Northern States; neither could he endure the severe cold of the Northern winter. For these reasons it was both merciful and “business” to sell him to the Southern planter, where the climate was more favorable and skilled labor not so important. In the South the climate, civilization, and other influences ameliorated the African’s condition, and that of almost the entire race of slaves, which numbered into the millions before their emancipation. It should be noted that their evangelization was the most fruitful missionary work of any modern Christian endeavor. The thoughtful and considerate negro of to-day realizes his indebtedness to the institution of African slavery for advantages which he would not have received had he remained in his semi-barbarism waiting in his native jungles for the delayed missionary.
And in 1917, the Confederate Veteran singled out one man for particular praise:
Great and trying times always produce great leaders, and one was at hand—Nathan Bedford Forrest. His plan, the only course left open. The organization of a secret government. A terrible government; a government that would govern in spite of black majorities and Federal bayonets. This secret government was organized in every community in the South, and this government is known in history as the Klu Klux Clan...
Here in all ages to come the Southern romancer and poet can find the inspiration for fiction and song. No nobler or grander spirits ever assembled on this earth than gathered in these clans. No human hearts were ever moved with nobler impulses or higher aims and purposes….Order was restored, property safe; because the negro feared the Klu Klux Clan more than he feared the devil. Even the Federal bayonets could not give him confidence in the black government which had been established for him, and the negro voluntarily surrendered to the Klu Klux Clan, and the very moment he did, the “Invisible Army” vanished in a night. Its purpose had been fulfilled.
Bedford Forrest should always be held in reverence by every son and daughter of the South as long as memory holds dear the noble deeds and service of men for the good of others on, this earth. What mind is base enough to think of what might have happened but for Bedford Forrest and his “Invisible” but victorious army.
In praising the Klan’s terrorism, Confederate veterans and their descendants displayed a remarkable consistency. White domination was the point. Slavery failed. Domination prevailed nonetheless. This was the basic argument of Florida Democratic Senator Duncan Fletcher. “The Cause Was Not Entirely Lost,” he argued in a 1931 speech before the United Daughters of the Confederacy:
The South fought to preserve race integrity. Did we lose that? We fought to maintain free white dominion. Did we lose that? The States are in control of the people. Local self-government, democratic government, obtains. That was not lost. The rights of the sovereign States, under the Constitution, are recognized. We did not lose that. I submit that what is called “The Lost Cause” was not so much “lost” as is sometimes supposed.
Indeed it was not. For a century after the Civil War, White Supremacy ruled the South. Toward the end of that century, as activists began to effectively challenge white supremacy, its upholders reached for a familiar symbol.
Invocations of the flag were supported by invocations of the Confederacy itself. But by then, neo-Confederates had begun walking back their overt defenses of slavery. United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine claimed that...
Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jonathan Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Raphael Semmes and the 600,000 soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy did not fight for a “Lost Cause.” They fought to repel invasion, and in defense of their Constitutional liberties bequeathed them by their forefathers…
The glorious blood-red Confederate Battle Flag that streamed ahead of the Confederate soldiers in more than 2000 battles is not a conquered banner. It is an emblem of Freedom.
It was no longer politic to spell out the exact nature of that freedom. But one gets a sense of it, given that article quickly pivots into an attack on desegregation:
Since the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, reversed what had been the Supreme Law of the land for 75 years and declared unconstitutional the laws of 17 states under which segregated school systems were established, the thinking people have been aroused from their lethargy in respect to State’s Rights.
In this we see the progression of what became known as the “Heritage Not Hate” argument. Bold defenses of slavery became passé. It just happened that those who praised the flag, also tended to praise the instruments of white supremacy popular in that day.
And then there were times when the mask slipped. “Quit looking at the symbols,” South Carolina State Representative John Graham Altman said during a debate over the flag’s fate in 1997. “Get out and get a job. Quit shooting each other. Quit having illegitimate babies.”
Nikki Haley deserves credit for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag. She deserves criticism for couching that removal as matter of manners. At the present moment the effort to remove the flag is being cast as matter of politesse, a matter over which reasonable people may disagree. The flag is a “painful symbol” concedes David French. Its removal might “offer relief to those genuinely hurt,” writes Ian Tuttle. “To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred,” tweeted Mitt Romney. The flag has been “misappropriated by hate groups,” claims South Carolina senator Tom Davis.
This mythology of manners is adopted in lieu of the mythology of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great drawback of being rooted in a lie. The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans. The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.