The Bigger Problem With That Flag

06/25/2015 11:26 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

It only took nine people gunned down in cold blood by a flag-waving neo-Confederate, but we may finally be forcing the Stars and Bars into retreat. That's overdue by 150 years, it seems to me, but hey, better late than never. Maybe, just maybe, that flag may finally come down.

Yet even as many, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have called for retiring the flag, the discussion of this potent piece of Confederate symbolism continues to perpetuate an act of willful, collective amnesia over the meaning of that flag that began in 1865.

The debate over the flag has been cast almost entirely in racial terms, and that's fair enough. The Confederate flag is deeply hurtful to African Americans because it symbolizes white Southerners who fought to preserve slavery. The fact that over the years it has continued to fly over several Southern state capitols -- to say nothing of its use on bumper stickers, license plates, T-shirts, and all manner of Southern-themed kitsch -- acts like salt in a wound that will not heal. In fact, several people, Gov. Haley among them, have talked in therapeutic terms about how banishing the flag will lead to racial healing.

I hope that proves to be the case. Even if it does, outrage over the continued presence of the Confederate flag in American life transcends race. Or it ought to. It should offend every American.

It is certainly true that during the Civil War the flag rallied those who were prepared to fight and to die in order to defend the South's "peculiar institution." Anyone of whatever race therefore ought to find the flag despicable. But the flag is also a symbol of the Confederacy itself, a treasonous rebellion against the legitimately elected government of the United States.

Certainly Americans at the time saw it that way. In March 1861, for example, Sen. Andrew Johnson delivered a thundering speech declaring, "Show me the man who makes war on the government, and fires on its vessels, and I will show you a traitor." That is exactly what Confederates did.

Likewise, at the end of the war, the Tennessee state legislature adopted a resolution offering a $5,000 reward for the capture of Isham Harris. Harris was the former governor of the state who in 1861 led Tennessee to join the Confederacy. The resolution charged Harris with treason and blamed him "to a great extent for the war, misery and death of thousands of citizens of the State." Sometime in the late 19th century African Americans tweaked the verses of the "John Brown Song" to add, "We'll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree."

But a funny thing happened on the way to that apple tree. By the end of the 19th century, the Confederacy started to become rehabilitated in the eyes of the nation. Traitors became brothers, treason became a glorious "lost cause." Henry Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution and the leading booster of the "New South" movement of that era, told a crowd in New York in 1886 that while it was a good thing that "human slavery was swept forever from American soil," even so "the South has nothing for which to apologize. The South has nothing to take back."

And Confederates were not forced to apologize, not for starting the Civil War or for slavery, which was its cause. Jeff Davis didn't swing from a sour apple tree or any other tree. He enjoyed a graceful retirement in Mississippi, and Isham Harris returned from his international exile to be elected to the U.S. Senate from the same state that had labeled his wartime actions treasonous.

Thus did the Confederacy become separated from its raison d'être, chattel slavery. Slavery is now indefensible. But Americans have allowed the Confederacy to be viewed as something other than what it was: an armed insurrection designed to destroy the United States. All of us, except maybe Dylann Roof's 99 Facebook friends, find jokes about slavery to be in bad taste. Rick Perry intimates that Texas might be forced to secede from the Union, however, and he's now running for president.

Instead we tolerate the Confederacy, allowing it to be seen as some sort of Southern "heritage" or as a way of promoting regional pride. A Confederacy thoroughly sanitized of its original intent and purpose. Remember the Dukes of Hazzard theme song? "Just some good ol' boys / Never meanin' no harm," Waylon Jennings sang as their car, emblazoned with that Confederate flag, tore around the countryside. "The mountain might get 'em / But the law never will," Jennings continued, and he was historically right: The law never did deal with Confederates, and because of that, the rest of us have accepted a preposterous nostalgia for the Confederacy.

If after 150 years we're finally going to consign the Confederate flag to the dustbin of history and to the exhibit cases of museums, we have to make sure we bury the entirety of what that flag stands for as well. It is too late to bring the traitors of 1861 to justice, but surely we can stop treating them as perverse heroes, and we can start calling the Confederacy what it really was.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.