This article is Part One of Two. The second can be found here. Actually, you might want to read that one first, lest you be confused and think that the Confederate Battle Flag is not a symbol of racism simply because the Klan didn’t use it until later.
We’ve all seen photos of Klan rallies and marches. One particular series of images captures a 1925 KKK march on Washington DC. The photographs show hundreds of Klansmen and scores of United States flags. Some were surprised to see not a single Confederate Battle flag among the marchers. Those with an agenda posed this as evidence that the Battle Flag was not now a symbol of racism.
Upon first thoughtless gland, it seems a hard point to refute. We see images of a huge Klan rally without a single Confederate flag in sight. How could this be? But rather than just accepting these random photos presented without of context, it would be best to look into it. Why was there such a march and where were the Klan’s iconic rebel flags?
The Other March on Washington
The photo in question was from the August 8, 1925 Klan march on Washington, DC. On this date, nearly forty thousand Klan members flooded into the nation’s capital for a sanctioned parade, which lasted well over three and a half hours. It wasn’t merely old white racists in robes walking, but bands, drill teams, and banners. Capping it off, the Imperial Wizard himself, Hirman Evans, clad in the smartest of purples, led the procession. 1“Klan Parades Washington; Peace Rules March” Chicago Tribune, Aug 9, 1925, 1.
The tens of thousands of Klansmen and women carried tens of thousands of United States flags. In fact, part of the Klan’s oath in the 1920s was a pledge to “no flag but the Star Spangled Banner.” This was the Klan’s era of “Patriotic klanishness,” as they called it. They demanded “an unswerving allegiance to the principles of a pure Americanism as represented by the flag of our great Nation, namely, liberty, justice, and truth.” 2From the Kloran, the Klan’s handbook, as printed in The Ku-Klux Klan: Hearings Before the Committee on Rules, House of Representatives; Sixty-Seventh Congress; First Session (Government Printing Office, 1921) 114-126.
This was the second phase of the Klan, reborn in 1915. Shifting their original focus of terrorizing black people to generally hating anyone who wasn’t a white protestant, they managed to gain monumental numbers, all under the insistence that they were super-patriots and real Americans. While their ire against the black population was still voracious, the Klan waved the United States flag to remind various immigrants, members of labor unions, and Roman Catholics that America wasn’t for them. 3David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (Quadrangle Books, 1981) 194.
The Forbidden Flag
But the lack of Confederate battle flags has more to do with the history of the flag than it does the Klan. Following the Confederate surrender in 1865, the regimental battle flags were furled and put away.
Though it did not seem to be a general law, through much of the South, the flying of any of the flags of the Rebellion was nearly forbidden. Also barred were Confederate uniforms and insignia. In some places, such as Charleston, South Carolina, even ceremonies were banned. Federal officers, and especially Union veterans, were understandably hostile toward any of these symbols.
But by the early 1870s, Confederate flags of some sort began to appear more often on coffins and in memorial ceremonies. While toward the end of the previous decade the flags were used to show defiance and spite, now the Southerners had pushed the emblems beyond previous limits. During various observations through that decade, the flags would fly from time to time in the streets of Southern cities. The battle flag itself appeared almost exclusively through the period of the 1880s and 1890s when Confederate monuments were erected across the South. More than any other day, Confederate Memorial Day saw the most battle flags. And as the 1900s began, battle flags were placed before the gravestones of fallen Confederates.
Through all of this, the battle flag was used exclusively for memorial ceremonies. For a time, heritage organizations used various official flags of the Confederate government (the First National, the Third National, etc.) instead of the battle flag. But for some reason or another, in the late 1920s, the Sons of Confederate Veterans adopted the battle flag. This cemented the battle flag as the Confederate Flag. But still, it was used only in official SCV capacity and for ceremonies. 4John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: American’s Most Embattled Emblem, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005) 46, 50-52, 55.
The Rebirth of a Nation
The second phase of the Klan began during this period where the battle flag was simply not used outside of memorials. That is not to say that the Klan had purged itself of its Confederate roots. Quite the opposite. On Thanksgiving night of 1915, the Klan gathered atop the Confederate monument carved into the side of Stone Mountain by Klan member, and set a three hundred foot high cross aflame. They even named their chapters, called Klaverns, after Confederate officers. 5Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford University Press, 1994) 5.
But this new Klan wasn’t just for the South. Klaverns began cropping up all over the map – even into Canada. To fly the Confederate battle flag would seem counter-intuitive. In the United States, they flew the United States flag. In Canada, they flew the British flag. 6James M. Pitsula, Keeping Canada British: The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Saskatchewan (University of British Columbia Press, 2013).
And so, at their peak, the Klan marched on Washington D.C. with United States flags flying, to tell everyone who wasn’t white and protestant that America did not want them. Simply put, the Klan’s broader focus did not require the specifics that the Confederate flag offered. Though the Klan’s new scope of hatred was widened to include non-black people, Washington’s black population was well aware of the parade. “There was only a sprinkling Of Negroes along the line of march,” reported the fairly-racist Chicago Tribune, “although throngs of picka-ninnies swarmed after the bands as they moved down side streets the procession was forming.” 7“Klan Parades Washington; Peace Rules March” Chicago Tribune, Aug 9, 1925, 1.
Selecting the Flag
The reason there were no Confederate flags at the pictured KKK march is because it happened in 1925, over two decades before the battle flag was used for any purpose aside from ceremonial.
But we have all seen the Klan and another racist groups and people use the Confederate battle flag in their attacks upon the black community beginning even before the Civil Rights Movement got off the ground.
Still others sarcastically contend that it is the United States flag that is the true symbol of racism. Arguments can certainly be made to that point, but this isn’t one of them. The Klan did not select the American flag because it was a symbol of racism, they selected it because it was a symbol of America. Their vision of an all white, protestant America was encapsulated in their failed attempt to re-define the American flag.
In the 1920s, the Klan demanded that America was for white protestants only. In short, the 1925 Klan march on Washington, filled with waving American flags, symbolized the overly-optimistic reach of that era’s Klan.
Upon achieving this failure, and with the rise of the Civil Rights Movements, they shifted focus. In the 1950s and 60s, the Klan demanded that the South, symbolized now by the Confederate battle flag, was – like their cafes, bathrooms and water fountains – for whites only.
It was then that the Klan and other white supremacists selected the Confederate battle flag for the specific reason that it was already being used as a symbol of white supremacy. 8For more on this, see our post, “How the Confederate Battle Flag was Allowed to Become a Symbol of Racism.”
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||“Klan Parades Washington; Peace Rules March” Chicago Tribune, Aug 9, 1925, 1.|
|2.||⇡||From the Kloran, the Klan’s handbook, as printed in The Ku-Klux Klan: Hearings Before the Committee on Rules, House of Representatives; Sixty-Seventh Congress; First Session (Government Printing Office, 1921) 114-126.|
|3.||⇡||David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (Quadrangle Books, 1981) 194.|
|4.||⇡||John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: American’s Most Embattled Emblem, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005) 46, 50-52, 55.|
|5.||⇡||Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford University Press, 1994) 5.|
|6.||⇡||James M. Pitsula, Keeping Canada British: The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Saskatchewan (University of British Columbia Press, 2013).|
|7.||⇡||“Klan Parades Washington; Peace Rules March” Chicago Tribune, Aug 9, 1925, 1.|
|8.||⇡||For more on this, see our post, “How the Confederate Battle Flag was Allowed to Become a Symbol of Racism.”|