Colors with clout: What the Confederate flag means today

Monday, Jul. 06, 2009
By Dan Golden and Issac J. Bailey – The Sun News

Mickey James was caught between a flag and a boycott.

Myrtle Beach was trying to secure a college baseball tournament that would bring thousands of visitors to the area. It was good news for a town attempting to attract visitors to replace those from two large biker events Myrtle Beach city officials hope are on the way out.

So James, head of the Myrtle Beach branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote a letter welcoming the ACC event.

After the tournament was announced, however, the state NAACP passed a resolution condemning the ACC for breaking an economic boycott in place against the state since 2001, a boycott prompted by the Confederate flag’s presence on Statehouse grounds. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has said it would honor the boycott by not allowing NCAA sponsored or sanctioned events to be held in the state, except in special cases.

The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, an NAACP executive, was in Myrtle Beach at the time and told The Sun News then that "to be in a place where a flag … represents disrespect, hatred, enslavement and denigration of a people, the ACC should not want to be in support of that, but they are."

The dustup, just one of many in a fight that has festered for a century and a half, illustrates how sensitive the Confederate battle flag issue remains. That debate has been presented in a hate vs. heritage paradigm. But the flag defies easy boxes, and through the years it has come to symbolize heritage and hate.

‘That’s our flag’

Some have no qualms about displaying the flag. Joe Payne, the newsletter editor for the S.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, drives around the state with a battle flag on his license plate, speaking at memorial events and placing Southern crosses on the graves of Confederate soldiers.

"That’s our flag," the 65-year-old Upstate resident said. "That’s the flag of our ancestors, and it’s to be treated with the greatest respect that can be shown for it."

Allan Roberson, director of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room in Columbia, said the flag is one symbol of a war that profoundly affected the state and the nation.

"South Carolina was at the center of the most significant historical event in our nation’s history," he said.

Not only did the war change history, but our state, he said, was the heart of the conflict.

"The American Civil War is the defining period in American history," Roberson said. "It defines who we are today."

One flag, many meanings

Today, the flag can be found painted on the side of a barn in rural Horry County; on a bikini in the window of an Ocean Boulevard shop in Myrtle Beach; on a flagpole in a front yard on S.C. 15 not far from Myrtle Beach International Airport; on the forehead of a shirtless man walking on Front Street in Georgetown during the Harborwalk; at the Confederate Soldier’s monument on Statehouse grounds, where it was placed in 2000 after a compromise to bring it down from above the dome; and on T-shirts, tattoos, bumper stickers and the minds of many native South Carolinians.

Its meaning has become as varied as its displays.

It’s about heritage because it was carried into battle by ancestors fighting to protect their homeland – most Confederate soldiers owned no slaves – even while the leaders of the Confederacy said it was about keeping blacks in servitude.

It’s about hate because "when [Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee marched north to Gettysburg, one of the things that the Army of Northern Virginia did was kidnap free black folk and send them back into slavery – whether they had originally been slaves or not," wrote K. Michael Prince, author of "Rally ‘Round The Flag, Boys! South Carolina and the Confederate Flag."

Heidi Beirich of the civil-rights-focused Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., sees it as a symbol of hate in no uncertain terms.

"A concerted effort was made by the institution of segregation and white civil society to push a view of the South that justified the apartheid system then entrenched down here," Beirich said. "The battle flag was its fiery symbol."

But Ken Thrasher, 58, commander of the Litchfield Sons of Confederate Veterans, refuses to accept that interpretation.

"They need to look at the history and see which flag flew over slavery the longest," he said.

A state and its symbols

In fact, the battle flag seen today throughout the South did not fly above South Carolina’s capitol during the Civil War and was not the flag that drew the ire of black S.C. legislators in the years after the war.

It was the Palmetto Flag – the one with the Palmetto tree and crescent moon – the black legislators despised. That flag didn’t officially become the state’s flag until early in 1861 during the Civil War, according to Prince.

"More than any other emblem, this flag represented the state and its citizens during that conflict," Prince wrote. "In 1869 a resolution calling for the display of both an American and a South Carolina banner atop the State House passed the state legislature, but only over the objections of several black state senators. For them, the state flag remained a symbol of the state’s defiance against federal authority and of the treachery that had led to war."

Historian Walter Edgar found that more than a dozen different kinds of flags have flown over the Statehouse or been associated with South Carolina since colonial times, but none was the battle flag.

The Confederate flag did not become polarizing until after it became a primary symbol of hate groups such as the KKK – founded by former Confederate veterans – and was used during lynchings and cross burnings.

It was also used several times between 1938 and 1962 by S.C. segregationists to beat back the advance of the Civil Rights Movement.

"The state could have chosen to raise the Confederate banner in 1877, at the end of Reconstruction. But it did not. It could have hoisted one in 1906, when a joint resolution authorized the secretary of state to procure both a state and a U.S. flag for display over the capitol dome. Or it could have added a Confederate flag in 1910, when state law made flying the state flag mandatory," Prince wrote in his book. "But it did not do so in any of these instances. Instead, each Confederate flag went up at a time when the state felt itself besieged by ‘outside’ forces of change, with established patterns of social order and traditional ways of life under challenge from within."

Pop culture connections

The Confederate flag hasn’t always been a divisive symbol for South Carolinians.

It was painted on the roof of a central character in one of the nation’s most-watched TV shows, "The Dukes of Hazzard," emblazoned atop the orange 1969 Dodge Charger known as The General Lee, named for Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate military.

The rich power broker in the show’s fictional "Hazzard County" was named Jefferson Davis, after the president of the Confederacy, but he was better known as "Boss Hog."

The show was the second-highest rated show at its peak, behind only "Dallas," and black and white Southerners flocked to their TV sets for the Friday night CBS airings.

This is a typical response from someone asked to comment on the show:

"I liked it a lot. It seemed to have a Southern thing to it, with me being Southern. It was comical. But at the same time, Boss Hog was like a tyrant. I used to watch it a lot when I was a kid."

The words of a flag supporter? No. Those came from 45-year-old NAACP leader James. As for the flag emblazoned on General Lee?

"I really didn’t even realize it until you said it just now. I never focused on the flag of the car."

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