Almost precisely 150 years after the end of the nation’s devastating Civil War, the Confederate battle flag has once again become a bitterly-divisive symbol of the nation’s enduring struggle with the legacies of slavery and segregation.
But the “stars and bars” also remains an emblem of deep-seated cultural pride that many Southerners say transcends the ugly histories of the past.
For many in the state, the flag still represents “traditions that are noble,” said Gov. Nikki Haley Monday, noting that many South Carolinians “view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty,” and “a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict.”
“That is not hate, nor is it racism,” she said.
But since many others in the state see the flag as “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past,” it is time “to look at this in a different way,” she said, saying that the time has come to remove the flag from the State House grounds.
The governor’s announcement Monday afternoon came relatively quickly after a growing chorus of critics, both in South Carolina and the nation, demanded its removal from the capitol after the massacre of nine black members of a historic congregation in Charleston last week. The confessed gunman, Dylann Roof, used the Confederate symbol to represent his murderous brand of white supremacy.
The issue of the Confederate battle flag, however, has long been contentious in the state and throughout the South. As the civil rights movement began to emerge in 1962, lawmakers voted to place the stars and bars at the top of the State House that year to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. In 2000, the flag was removed and placed in memorial next to the building – a compromise after a business boycott led by the NAACP. Monday’s announcement, accompanied by hugs and applause, stands in contrast with the controversy 15 years prior.
“As the white South was undergoing great upheaval, it became a symbol of white resistance to all these cultural changes,” says Robert Brinkmeyer, director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
On Monday, Haley was joined by Republican Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, who is running for president. Senator Graham also announced it was time to remove the Confederate symbol, so “we can take another step towards healing and recognition – and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward.”
And as Graham told CNN last week, for many in South Carolina, the flag is “part of who we are.... But the problems we have today in South Carolina and across the world are not because of a movie or because of symbols, it is because of what is in people’s hearts.”
Still, the connections between people’s hearts and the outer symbols they use to express deep-felt cultural identities are as old as human civilization, scholars say. And particularly in the South, a certain sense of history, often called the “lost cause” myth, pervades the self-identity of many white Southerners to this day, scholars say, conveying of a kind of longing for an idealized, pastoral past.
“In the aftermath of the Civil War, the ‘lost cause’ ideology maintained the idea that good white Southerners would never forget what they had,” says Professor Brinkmeyer. “One way to think about this, as [the Southern novelist] Robert Penn Warren once said, the Confederacy really didn’t even begin until it was defeated, and what he meant by that was that white Southerners couldn’t celebrate the Confederacy until it was gone.”
And at the beginning of the 20th century, monuments to Confederate soldiers spread throughout the South, and from street and school names to statues in old town squares – even as racial segregation was being enshrined into law.
The Confederate battle flag, however, didn’t become such an important symbol until the emergence of the civil rights movement, scholars say.
“It was an act of defiance,” says Kenneth Janken, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about the placing of the battle flag atop the Statehouse dome in 1962. “People talk about ‘heritage not hate,’ but I think the context of it was really that it was not celebrating or honoring the sacrifices of soldiers as much as it was asserting an opposition to the civil rights movement.”
This weekend, a number of defenders of the flag insisted that the Confederate flag remained more as a memorial to the past than a symbol of hate.
“Since that time, the battle flag has grown to mean many things, including evil things,” wrote David French, staff writer and Gulf War veteran at the conservative political magazine, National Review. “...Flying it over monuments to Confederate war dead is simply history. States should no more remove a Confederate battle flag from a Confederate memorial than they should chisel away the words on the granite or bulldoze the memorials themselves.”
But the Confederate battle flag, says Professor Brinkmeyer, has also become a symbol for “for those people who resist globalization, resist homogenization, resist the breakdown of the regional identities which are taking place throughout America.”
Even in Europe, he says, right wing political movements use the flag as a symbol of resisting what they see as homogenizing and culture-weakening forces from the outside.
A two-thirds majority vote from both houses of the South Carolina legislature is required before the flag can be removed, lawmakers say – which may prove difficult, even though the Republican National Committee also joined calls to remove the flag on Monday. Haley said she would call lawmakers in for a special session if necessary to take action on the flag.
While civil rights groups lauded the governor’s decision, Haley said she saw no reason “to declare a winner or loser here."
“But know this, for good and for bad, whether it is on the statehouse grounds or in a museum, the flag will always be a part of the soil of South Carolina,” she said on Monday. “But this is a moment in which we can say that that flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.”