By: Dr. Brent Aucoin
In the wake of the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent resolution urging Christians to refrain from displaying the Confederate Battle Flag, Southern Baptists have been censured and ridiculed for taking this step by some in the broader Christian community. In reading through many of these criticisms I have noticed that they oftentimes demonstrate a flawed understanding of American history and culture. For instance, in Douglas Wilson’s initial attack on the SBC’s resolution, he brings his most substantive argument to a climax by asking: “If the Confederate flag ‘stands for’ slavery, in what way does the American flag not ‘stand for’ abortion?”
For the moment, let’s simply answer the question as posed. If it can be said that the Confederate flag “stands for” slavery it is because the Confederate States of America was created primarily for the purpose of preserving the institution of racial slavery in North America. In contrast, the American flag does NOT “stand for” abortion because the United States was NOT created primarily for the purpose of murdering the unborn.
However, the problem with the Confederate Battle Flag is not so much its association with slavery as it is with the movement to maintain white supremacy in the American South.
Wilson and other critics of the SBC’s resolution seem to ignore the fact that in the eyes of modern-day Americans, the symbolism of the Confederate Battle Flag was shaped primarily by its use after the end of the Civil War. The Confederate Battle Flag had all but disappeared from the public scene until 1894 when the Mississippi legislature incorporated it into the state flag (where it still remains today). It’s placement in the state flag was not mere nostalgia, it was designed to send a message. That message was that racist white southerners were in charge of the state once again and that the state’s leaders intended to promote and protect white supremacy. Democratic leaders had already imposed racial segregation on the state and in 1890 they had started the process of disfranchising Mississippi blacks. They were succeeding in relegating blacks to second class citizenship, and changing the flag was one way of proclaiming that message. But the Confederate Battle Flag did not serve merely as symbol for the Mississippi white supremacy movement, it came to symbolize that movement throughout the South. This occurred primarily in the 1940s when white Southern Democrats who opposed President Harry S. Truman’s advocacy of black civil rights and the Democrat Party’s insertion of a civil rights plank in its party platform formed the so-called Dixiecrat Party. This party, formed primarily in opposition to the notion of equal civil rights for blacks, adopted the Confederate Battle Flag as its primary symbol. The Dixiecrats nominated Strom Thurmond for President and actually won the electoral votes of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina in 1948. When the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954 and the civil rights movement began the next year with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats who led the opposition to the movement, and who continued to use the Confederate Battle Flag as the primary symbol of their anti-civil rights campaign. In fact, the Dixiecrat leaders in Alabama and South Carolina ordered the Confederate Battle Flag to be flown over their state capitols. Georgia Dixiecrats incorporated the Confederate Battle Flag into their state flag. As with Mississippi in the 1890s, the use of the imagery of the Confederate Battle Flag was no accident. It was the emblem of southerners and states who were hostile to the quest by blacks to obtain equal civil rights in America.
Not only did black Southerners come to see the battle flag as representing white supremacy, but so did rank-and-file white Southerners. Photographs of whites protesting the civil rights movement are replete with images of the Confederate Battle Flag being displayed as the symbol of their effort to keep blacks relegated to a status of second class citizens. Whatever the Confederate Battle Flag “stood for” before the 1940s, it is a historical fact that after the 1940s it came to stand for the maintenance of white supremacy in the South. And this was not the work of some small fringe group. This was the result of the efforts of the South’s governors, legislatures, and representatives in the US Congress.
In light of this history of the Confederate Battle Flag, is it not unreasonable for African Americans in the 21st century to sense hostility towards them as a race when they see it being displayed?
It is true that the person displaying the flag may not intend to convey the message of racial hostility. But that does not change the fact such a message is nevertheless communicated to others. To deny this is relativism of the worst sort. It is an embracing of the notion that we are all free to define truth as we please: “I declare that this flag means ‘x’ while you assert it means ‘y.’ You have your truth and I have mine.”
Whether one likes it or not, symbols get loaded with meaning, and it is folly to ignore the reality of such a situation. For instance, it would be folly on my part to proudly display a rainbow flag because I contend that the rainbow is a symbol of one of God’s promises. The vast majority of the people who saw my rainbow flag would immediately conclude that I am showing support for the LGBT movement, not reminding people of a promise of God. In the same way, it is folly to deny the historically-based fact that the Confederate Battle Flag shows support for the white supremacy movement – a movement that Christians have no business being associated with.
If you wish to show your Southern pride, or honor your Confederate ancestors, or demonstrate your support for states’ rights, then there are other flags for you to fly. But if you insist on continuing to fly the Confederate Battle Flag then no matter what message you think you are communicating you are actually expressing your allegiance to the failed movement to deny blacks basic civil rights.
Dr. Brent Aucoin is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of The College at Southeastern.