Heritage vs. Hate: The Great Debate

What the Confederate flag means 150 years after the Civil War

Danielle Drago

Changing Tides Staff

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Confederate flag has become almost ubiquitous in the South. Countless bumper stickers, T-shirts, and even some houses proudly display the battle flag of the Confederacy. While some argue that it represents the heritage and culture of the South, others say that in our post-millennial world, it simply signifies hatred and a segregationist attitude.

The flag originated in December 1861, after another flag, the Stars and Bars was tossed aside as the representative flag for the Confederacy. The Stars and Bars looked too similar to the United States flag and generals in the Confederacy thought it would be too confusing in battle.

Therefore, the Confederacy adopted the new flag: a square version of what we now think of as the Confederate flag. The flag was originally a battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia but was recognized and eventually adopted by the Confederacy as a whole.

“Originally, it was a symbol of war,” said Dr. David Durham, Curator of Archival Collections of the School of Law. “That war was about the South rebelling against the United States. So, at the very core of it, there’s some negative association with the flag of a group who fights against their own country. There’s problem with the flag to start with.”

After the brutal defeat of the South in the Civil War, the South went through a rebuilding stage, in which many clung to the Confederate flag more than ever.

“Southerners were trying to heal themselves from war,” Durham said. “The whole South was in ruins.

[The flag] became a symbol of Southerners symbolically resisting northern aggression or northern domination. It was a sectional symbol of Southern pride,” Durham said.

The 1950s and 1960s ushered in a new meaning for the Confederate flag. Across millions of televisions screens worldwide the flag was displayed during Civil Rights protests, and the Klu Klux Klan started to adopt the flag as a symbol for their cause. The flag was waved proudly here on the University campus in protest of the admission of UA’s first black student, Autherine Lucy.

“However benign what the flag represented before the 1920s changed in the 1950s with the Civil Rights era,” Durham said.

Now, in the new century, the wounds of the era still may have not gone away.

“The difficulty is realizing that when you pull out a symbol like that, you pull out all of the things it’s attached to,” said Lisa Dorr, assistant professor of history. “And you can’t separate it.”

The eternal debate of the flag representing heritage or hate is complicated, Dorr said.

“What I have seen are certain groups of people who tend to be white who associate the flag with celebrating their understanding of their past, of their history,” she said. “I think that certainly that’s fine. What I think that they are resistant to is realizing all of the baggage that comes with those symbols or that heritage. And often times, nobody likes to remember the stickier, messier aspects of their past.”

The Confederate flag has caused conflicts over the years. “The flag is something that really means something to people. But it has caused a lot of problems,” said Dr. Howard Jones, University Research professor with the department of history.

Dorr agrees. “People may not be wanting to put forward hate or make a statement about their racial views but they have to understand that that symbol looks a lot different to other groups of people,” she said. “[The flag] is reminiscent of a time in which African Americans were seen as inferior. Whether you want to call that hate, it was based on racism.”

However, some argue that displaying such an emblem is in line with students’ rights.

“I think that any movement to ban the display of the Confederate flag is a violation of students’ rights,” said Tim Spires, a sophomore majoring in French, management and information systems and finance.

However, Spires said he did not like the idea of the flag representing the South.

“I have a problem with the battle flag of the confederacy representing southern heritage in the first place because the Civil War was a bad idea,” he said. “It destroyed the South. I think the display of the Confederate flag today represents a movement to cling to the trappings of a Southern society which has not existed as a whole for almost two centuries. I am not referring to the institution of slavery but to the social structure of the antebellum era South.”

Spires said the greatest way to represent Southern heritage is through actions.

Repairing the image of the Confederate flag may not be easy, but extended dialogue can only help matters, Dorr said.

“We’re going to have to talk about what happened on this campus, about the Civil War and slave owning on campus,” she said. “It’s this slow process of gradual change and gradual enlightenment. It’s like any psychological issue with people. If you bury and deny feelings, they fester. When you talk about them, that’s when they begin to go away.”

The University’s ties to the Confederacy ought not to be ignored, she said. “If you embrace [history], you can really build on it. Alabama is on the map for things like George Wallace in the schoolhouse door and Autherine Lucy and the mob, but it could be put on the map as a place to research and talk about those issues of race. We have some of the best collections to look at how the issue of race has been dealt with in the United States. We should turn this in to a research powerhouse.”

All in all, the history of the Confederate flag on campus is something that could bring growth if people are ready to discuss the implications of it, Dorr said.

“If you look to this as an asset we can build on other than a liability we need to hide, I think we can really go somewhere with it,” she said.

On The Web:   www.cw.ua.edu/changing-tides/heritage-vs-hate-the-great-debate-1.1739178