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How the Confederate Battle Flag was Allowed to Become a Symbol of Racism

For decades now, the Confederate Battle Flag has been used by the Ku Klux Klan as a symbol of racism. Despite claims to the contrary, the KKK did not “hijack” the flag to convert it to their own purposes. By the early 1960s, when the Klan finally latched onto it in a public way, the flag had already been remade as a symbol of exclusive racial superiority. 1You hear this quite a bit, but here’s a typical example.

The use of the battle flag to express white supremacy over black people did not originate in a vacuum. The Klan merely glommed onto it, coming a few years late to a party started some time before by white Southern politicians and a brash chorus of willing constituents already waving the banner.

The earliest photo I could find of the Klan using the battle flag in public protest against the Freedom Movement. June 1964, St. Augustine, Florida.
The earliest photo I could find of the Klan using the battle flag in public protest against the Freedom Movement. June 1964, St. Augustine, Florida. Over 25 years after its first appearance inside the South Carolina legislature.

Beginnings – Lynching, the Confederate Flag, and Politics

The first major post-war use of the Confederate battle flag as something other than a memorial was by the government of South Carolina. 2I say “major” knowing that there were other instances of its use. The most interesting was in the 1920 lynching of Will Echols. As reported in the Chicago Defender of October 2, 1920: “Echols, it is said, was forced to kiss a Confederate flag shortly before he was hanged to a pole and shot to death. His arms were chopped off and pieces of the flesh were distributed among the mob members.” There is also the Mississippi State Flag, dating to 1894, though its relation to race is hard to determine. In 1938, John D. Long, a representative from Union County, proposed that the battle flag join the flags of the United States and South Carolina which were displayed in the chamber of the House immediately behind the speaker’s desk. No mention was made of states rights or of segregation, but some believed the timing odd. The House had just endured a long debate on lynching, and there was some contention with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. 3Rebecca Bridges Watts, Contemporary Southern Identity: Community Through Controversy (University Press of Mississippi, 2008) 89-90.

The earliest-found image of the Klan using the battle flag in a private ceremony. Atlanta, Georgia, May 1946.
The earliest-found image of the Klan using the battle flag in a private ceremony (obviously staged for the photographer). Atlanta, Georgia, May 1946.

The fact that it was proposed by John D. Long also raised some questions. Long was the son of Union County’s original KKK leader. The apple not falling far from the tree, Long himself was a die-hard segregationist. Though the Civil Rights Movement had not quite gotten off the ground, the first rumblings were beginning to appear across the nation. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt openly spoke up for the rights of black Americans. 4K. Michael Prince, Rally ’round the Flag, Boys!: South Carolina and the Confederate Flag (University of South Carolina, 2004) 29-30.

Over the next few years, Long was emboldened in his beliefs, railing that “un-American… damned agitators of the North” were “seeking the amalgamation of the White and Negro races by a co-mingling of the races upon any basis of equality.” By 1944, he had had enough. Long urged fellow representatives to vote for an outwardly white supremacist government. They reaffirmed their “belief in and our allegiance to established White Supremacy as now prevailing in the South and pledging our lives and our sacred honor to maintain it, whatever the cost, in war and peace.” The measure passed the House in an almost unanimous vote. 5Bryant Simon, A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

Stetson Kennedy, a Southerner and civil rights activist who infiltrated the Klan and the Columbian Workers Movement to expose their hatred.
Stetson Kennedy, a Southerner and civil rights activist who infiltrated the Klan and the Columbian Workers Movement to expose their hatred.

This did not sit well with South Carolina’s black population. In an letter to Long, black leaders reminded him that if it wasn’t for white men who “took advantage of Negro women for immoral purposes… all Negroes for the most part would have been black.” All they actually wanted, they said, was “full justice in the courts of South Carolina.” Shortly after, sixty white men from South Carolina formed the Southern Democratic Party to distance themselves from the progressive wing of their aged institution.

Governor Olin D. Johnston, then, addressed the South Carolina legislature, the Confederate battle flag now adorning its helm with the state and federal flags. “Where you now sit,” he spoke of the Reconstruction era, “there sat a majority of Negroes. What kind of government did they give South Carolina when they were in power? […] They left a stench in the nostrils of the people of South Carolina that will exist for generations to come.” 6Nadine Cohodas, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change (Simon & Schuster, 1993) 79-81.

The Symbol Makes Its Political Debut

Even through this, the Confederate battle flag made few, if any, political appearances outside of South Carolina. It was not featured in campaigns or advertisements, in banners or rallies. It was, however, now being embraced by the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. As of 1946, and possibly earlier, the Klan was using it as part of their private ceremonies. It was also taken up by the Columbian Workers Movement in Atlanta. They hung a huge battle flag from their building emblazoned with lightening bolts and the slogan “Race, Nation, Faith” upon it. This was possibly the first post-World War II group to combine Confederate and Nazi symbolism, as they also flew the swastika. These were not public events. While it may or may not have specifically symbolized their racist ideals, it was, thus far, a private matter within these organizations. 7Stetson Kennedy, The Klan Unmasked (University of Alabama Press, 1990) 119-121.

In the same year, students from the University of Mississippi – Ole Miss – began to use the Confederate battle flag as a sort of secondary mascot for the football team. Over the next year, the use increased. This wasn’t just an isolated incident. Other Southern schools had been doing this since the 1930s, possibly even before John D. Long had it placed in the House Chamber. These collegiate displays were not political, exactly, but soon became so.

Undated (but early) photo of the huge Confederate flag at Ole Miss.
Undated (but early) photo of the huge Confederate flag at Ole Miss.

For instance, when Harvard played the University of Virginia, many came to the stadium with Confederate flags, waving them in what was taken as defiance of Harvard’s tackle, Chester Pierce, the first African-American they ever saw play the game. This action caused the University of Pennsylvania to request that the University of Virginia not bring their battle flags with them when they played in Philadelphia later that year. According to the Virginia university’s newspaper from the year previous, the appearance of the Confederate battle flags caused Southern “rowdyism in the crowd, but damnyankee disrespect to the great flag as well.” 8John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag, America’s Most Embattled Emblem (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005) 94-96.

As it’s been shown, the Confederate flag did not need the Ku Klux Klan for it to gain popularity – it seemed more than capable of doing that at the hands of white Southerners without robes. But still, it had not yet received its final greatest push toward national infamy. This would not come in the form of a hooded knight or burning cross, but from the fledgling Southern Democrat Party – the Dixiecrats.

The Flag as a Symbol of Segregation and Dixie

In the spring of the next year, 1948, the Confederate battle flag flew along the streets of Jackson when Mississippi’s governor, Fielding Wright, himself carrying a flag, arrived to inaugurate the new States Rights Democratic Party. Speaking directly to the African-American community via the radio, Governor Wright warned that “If any of you have become so deluded as to want to enter our white schools, patronize our hotels, and cafes, enjoy social equality with the whites, then kindness and true sympathy requires me to advise you to make your home in some other state than Mississippi.” 9Thomas W. Devine Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) 246.

Truman speaking at the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia.
Truman speaking at the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia.

The presidential campaigning was already heating up. Harry Truman, a more progressive Democrat, was pitted against Thomas Dewey, a fairly progressive Republican. To combat both relative progressives, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina ran for the Dixiecrats. Thurmond had his coming out at the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Here, Democrats finally took a small stand against segregation, hoping “to eradicate all racial, religious, and economic discrimination.” The convention, still made up of many Southern politicians, vetoed the idea, instead approving “the right of full and equal political participation.” But even this was too progressive for many in the Southern states. Mississippi and part of the Alabama delegation walked out, the latter having attended with Confederate battle flags in tow. Even their leaving could not quell the discontent, the Confederate flag waving, or the band incessantly playing “Dixie.” 10John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag, America’s Most Embattled Emblem (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005) 99.

With Truman winning the Democratic Party’s nomination, Strom Thurmond fell in with the Dixiecrats. At the urging of both Fielding Wright and and former Alabama governor, Frank Dixon, Thurmond announced his candidacy for President. He did so at an almost impromptu convention in Birmingham, Alabama. The whole place was decked out in Confederate flags and portraits of Confederate officers. The party’s platform spoke out against the “totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police state called for” by both of the major parties. “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race,” it continued, “the constitutional right to choose one’s associates, to accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one’s living in any lawful way. We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes…”

When Thurmond spoke, he forever tied together the Confederate battle flag and racism:

Strom Thurmond at the Dixiecrat Convention in 1948.
Strom Thurmond at the Dixiecrat Convention in 1948.

“I want to tell you that the progress of the Negro race has not been due to these so-called emancipators, but to the kindness of the good southern people. … I want to tell you that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” The crowd erupted in cheering and Confederate flag waving.

Some Southern newspaper decried his racism and the splitting of the Democratic Party, while others, especially in South Carolina, applauded their governor for telling it like they believed it should be told. 11Nadine Cohodas, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change (Simon & Schuster, 1993) 175-177.

Just how the Confederate battle flags came to such prominence in Birmingham’s Dixiecrat Convention is still debated. What seems to be accurate is that college students from either the University of Mississippi or Birmingham-Southern brought them, though both denied it at the time. Regardless, the flags were in abundance and were obviously available from a multitude of sources if they made their appearance even in Philadelphia.

The Confederate battle flag became the de facto symbol of the Dixiecrat party, and its wide use at their convention did not go unnoticed by the black community.

“Screaming, frenzied, frightened and comical,” spat the Pittsburgh Courier, “Dixie ran up the Confederate flag again here Saturday, eighty-three years after Lee hauled it down and handed it over to Grant at Appomattox … and those frantic Democrats bellowed their resistance to civil rights and their allegiance to the principles of the KKK.”

1948 Dixiecrat Convention
1948 Dixiecrat Convention

Heritage and Hate Groups

The Confederate battle flag had now entered the national discourse. It was not the Klan that did it, but racist Southerners who waved it in defiance of the very idea of African-Americans being allowed to vote, to attend public schools, and patronize whichever establishments their freedoms ought to have allowed. This rebirth of the Confederate flag was only about racism, and its advocates were not shy about admitting it.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, known until this point as solely a Confederate heritage organization, was not at all squeamish about the battle flag’s new use. In fact, it seemed to them like business as usual when they endorsed the Dixiecrat Party’s pro-segregationist platform later that same year. “We stand,” they held, “within the very shadow of our Confederate ancestors in affirming our stand.”

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, on the other hand, actually attempted to have misuse of the flag banned through their proposed “Legislation to Protect the Confederate Flag from Misuse.” Though the organization distributed freely the battle flag itself, they seemed to understand the thin grey line between honoring the dead and usurpation of their memory in ways that their brothers in the SCV could not grasp. 12John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag, America’s Most Embattled Emblem (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005) 101-102, 106.

But perhaps it was already too late. Maybe it was too easy to use the Confederate battle flag as a representation of segregation and racism. After all, it originally represented the armed forces of a republic whose cornerstone was “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.” 13Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” Savannah Republican, as reprinted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during, and since the War (National Publishing Company, 1886), 721.

The Southern Democratic Party and college activists ushered in its use as a symbol of racism. The Sons of Confederate Veterans endorsed its use, encouraging that the flag be used to promote segregation, speaking nothing of heritage alone. They linked heritage to hate for several decades before finally renouncing it, but by then, it was no use.

Many white people from the deep South fully accepted the battle flag as a symbol for their pro-segregation politics, their racism, and their heritage. In turn, black people were forced to associate the battle flag with hatred against their race.

Southern whites did not just stand by and watch it happen, powerless to stop it – they actively helped cement it into the white supremacist ideology with which it is still associated today. And though some may now earnestly try to distance the battle flag from its racist origin and racist revival, it is far too late for the flag to save face. The crimes have been committed, the damage has been done.

All of this paved the way for the opposition against the Civil Rights Movement. It was then that the Ku Klux Klan joined the fray in earnest. They had experienced a bit of a downturn from the late 40s through much of the 50s. But by the early 1960s, they reformed and took their place along side many fellow white Southerners in protesting the black community’s demands for equal rights. 14Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross; The Ku Klux Klan in America (Simon & Schuster, 1987) 329-332.

From then on, whenever white people wanted to protest against black people, the Confederate battle flag was their banner of choice. Others, such as the Nazi flag and the United States flag, made some guest appearances, but the Confederate battle flag was center stage, saying everything without having to speak a word.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.