Recently, the city of Lexington, Virginia passed an ordinance to prohibit Confederate Flags on city-owned poles. The debate the emerged during the proposed rule brought up the fact that the debate on the flying of the flag is far from over. The Sons of Confederate Veterans held a demonstration prior to the vote and, according to the article linked to above, vowed to “challenge the ordinance in court.”
Why is it that over 150 years after the start of the US Civil War that the debate over the Confederate flag is still relevant? There are a few factors involved.
First and foremost: while the nature of the Confederacy itself is often cited in these debates, the usage of the flag since the end of the war is what drives these “cultural” conflicts. Most importantly in recent history is the usage in the political movement against desegregation in the South. The Flag became a symbol of resistance to the move to resist integration and stop “northern dominance” over the South. This association is difficult to delink from the racist elements and motivations of the flag, considering the most recent historical widespread use of it was this political battle and the racist side that the flag symbolized.
As I have argued elsewhere, the States’ Rights argument that is often appealed to in these cases has historically been an excuse to actually prevent rights from expanding. In the case of the Civil War: it was the right of states to continue to have the slave system. In the civil rights era: it was the right of states to continue to segregate. The Sons of Confederate Veterans argues that the Civil War was a war about freedom for the South. They conveniently ignore or cease to elaborate for whom in the South that freedom was for. Considering that the South explicitly seceded to preserve the institution of slavery, it is quite clear that the freedom was a very limited notion of the term. The fact that the Sons of Confederate Veterans does not quite address this issue is quite telling of the nature of their organization and motivations for promoting symbols like the Confederate flag.
Each era that the flag was widely used (particularly the Civil War itself and the Civil Rights eras), it was a symbol of the oppression of black folks. It would be a difficult case to make that it has been anything but this without getting into abstract debates about freedom of speech. That’s not to say that the Sons of Confederate Veterans, or other groups are necessarily trying to promote a specific racist political goal in these cases. But one thing that is undeniable is that they are attempting to promote the use of a symbol that has been used almost exclusively in history to promote racist political and social policy.