In the early hours of Thursday morning, South Carolina’s House of Representatives voted to approve a bill for the removal of the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the State House.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who has already made clear her belief that the flag should be removed from the State House, is now required to sign the bill for it to pass into law. Twenty-four hours after the bill is signed the flag can be removed, at which point it will become a relic in the nearby Relic Room and Military Museum.
The Confederate Flag, and more specifically what it represents, has long been a contentious issue in the United States, with various high profile controversies arising in the last fifty years about its continued public presence. In South Carolina, this issue recently became particularly pronounced with the tragic shooting of nine people at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
With the murders apparently motivated by ideas of white supremacy and the killer arrested in a car bearing the Confederate flag, the connections between the ‘stars and bars’ design and racism have once again come to the fore in the United States. Campaigners against the continued display of the Confederate flag in South Carolina were further incensed when the flag continued to fly over the State House even when the national and state flags had been lowered to half mast in commemoration of the killings.
Throughout US history, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, the Confederate flag has frequently been associated with ideas of white supremacy, racism and slavery. It is important to note however, that the Confederate Flag is deeply symbolic, representing for many ideas of Southern heritage and pride not connected to segregation, slavery or racism. These differences in opinion over what the flag represents have formed in the years since the US Civil War, and explain why the image of the flag has become so contentious in South Carolina, and elsewhere.
South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in 1860, beginning a process which led to the creation of the Confederate States of America, and the eruption of the US Civil War in 1861. What is widely recognised as the Confederate Flag today – the red, blue and white ‘stars and bars’ flag – was never actually adopted by the Confederacy, it was the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
After the war, the flag was used in the Southern states at Civil War ceremonies, reunions and cemeteries. For many Americans the flag of Lee’s army was a symbol of southern pride, commemorating the war dead and clinging onto a distinctly southern culture. This idea, that the ‘stars and bars’ reflect southern heritage and nothing more, continues to be used in the flag’s defence. In Texas for example, the Supreme Court is currently deliberating a decision by the state to prevent an organisation called ‘the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ (SCV) from using licence plates featuring the Confederate flag. The SCV claims on its website that its only motivation is to preserve ‘the history and legacy of these heroes’ (Confederate soldiers).
In the twentieth century, the flag increasingly became associated with the explosion of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan as racism and segregation became an increasing source of conflict in the USA. In 1948 it also became the symbol of the States’ Rights Democratic Party which sought to resist civil rights platforms in the Democrat Party.
The flag was raised on top of the South Carolina State House in 1962 to mark a century since the start of the Civil War. On the one hand this seemed to support the idea that the flying of the flag was nothing more than an act of remembrance for the devastating conflict, on the other hand, many pointed to the timing of the flag’s return as a deliberate mark of protest against the civil rights movement and the desegregation of schools. For four decades it was a source of controversy as campaigns were launched to have the flag removed. It was eventually moved from the top of the State House to a less prominent location in the year 2000, but its presence remained a cause of debate and dispute.
Its long history means that the Confederate flag has come to take on a variety of different meanings. For some it is permanently associated with the Confederate States’ desire to preserve the institution of slavery in the south of the USA. For others, it cannot be separated from the white supremacist and racist groups that sprung up in the twentieth century and adopted the flag as their symbol. Finally, for others, it is nothing more than a symbol of Southern heritage and pride, clinging to a cultural identity which is distinct from that of the Northern states. The modern controversies over the flag are incredibly complex and impossible to pass judgment on, but a look at the flag’s history allows us to see just how it has become such an explosive issue.