Newly sworn-in Alabama Governor George Wallace delivering his inaugural address. January 14, 1963. Look at what’s peeking out just to the right of Wallace’s elbow. Photo via NPR.
In the decades after the Civil War, the rebel battle flag appeared mainly at historical and memorial events honoring Confederate veterans and the dead. Not until the 1940s did it frequently serve as a baldly racist banner, brandished by segregationist Dixiecrats and by the Klan and other groups during the Civil Rights era. It was also at this time that the flag appeared atop Southern statehouses, first in South Carolina and then in Alabama, where Governor George Wallace raised it ahead of a hostile meeting in 1963 with Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General. A few months earlier, Wallace stood beside a rebel flag as he took his oath of office at the precise spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as Confederate president.
“From this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” Wallace declared, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
---Tony Horwitz writing at Talking Points Memo.
There might---might---have been a time when flying that flag was a simple act of remembrance. There was---was---a period when it was on its way to becoming just a museum piece, a grave marker, a movie prop, and a piece of pop culture kitsch.
But that period ended when it was unfurled at the head of a parade of cowards in bed sheets and when jeering mobs waved it to taunt Civil Rights marchers and segregationist politicians raised it and stood beside it in defiance of federal troops and United States marshals come to remind them that they were citizens of the United States and subject to its laws and those laws required them to let all their fellow Americans into their schools and businesses and take part in civic and public life and compel them to treat them as what they were themselves, human beings and equal citizens of the United States.
And since then flying that flag has never been anything but what it was when it was first flown on the battlefield.
It was flown then and still flies as a message to the federal government and all its non-white citizens and their friends and allies."We have a God-given right as states and as individuals to hate and to act on our hatred in law and in life."
"It is our right, our God-given right, as states and individuals to treat anyone who isn't our kind as less than us, as less than equal, as less than human, and to place ourselves and our kind above them in law and in life."
That flag is a proud boast of white supremacy and a promise to defend whites in their supremacy.
It's also an assertion that some white people are more supreme than others. There's a reason Governor Haley can't simply order the one in Columbia taken down, why it's locked in place, why it can't be flown at half mast or even lowered without a vote of two thirds of the state legislature. By South Carolina law no act of the United States Congress, no federal court ruling, no vote by a majority of South Carolina citizens and their representatives acting on their orders can force a united and determined minority to take it down, which is to say, to surrender on the issue of white supremacy.
The rights of white supremacists supersede the rights, dignity, and common humanity of every other American.
That flag doesn't fly as a symbol of some willfully and stubbornly misremembered and nostalgified tragic misunderstanding of long ago. It's a present day threat.
It isn't offensive to "some" because of what it stands for.
It's offensive to many and should be offensive to all decent and fair-minded Americans because of what it says today and has always said.
This isn’t a side-issue.
Nine people are dead because Dylann Roof listened to what it says.
“You don’t count.”
“We have a right to hate.”
“And we will prove either point with a billy club or an axe handle or a dog or a firehose or a bomb or a gun if we have to.”
For a more temperate, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and in-depth look at the issue, read Tony Horwitz’s post at TPM, How The South Lost The War But Won The Narrative.
And be sure to visit NPR for this Radio Diary on Wallace’s inauguration address: 'Segregation Forever': A Fiery Pledge Forgiven, But Not Forgotten.
I think I’ve linked to this before but here’s a series of period photographs by John Kouns at Sydic Literary Journal that puts that flag in its proper historical context, Words & Symbols: 1960’s U.S. Racial Segregation. Warning: some ugly stuff there.
Also recommended: There's deep irony in removing the Confederate flag using the rhetoric of states' rights, by Jonathan Allen at Vox.
And highly recommended, Horwitz’s excellent Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, available for kindle and in new and used hardcover and paperback editions through the marketplace at Amazon.