The framing of any story is as important as the story itself. After a Georgia couple were recently convicted and sentenced to 35 years after a group they were part of showed up to a child’s birthday party making terroristic threats and waving a shotgun and a “confederate” flag around, the opportunists in the mainstream media naturally responded by focusing on the flag rather than the incident itself. Similar to what they did with the Dylann Roof incident.
In response to this nonsense, I feel it is necessary to take a more nuanced approach, and explain some of the history behind the symbolism of the flag, as well as what has lead up to this controversy.
The symbolism behind the rebel flag, known as the cross of St. Andrew or a saltire, is ancient. Legend has it that St. Andrew was a missionary to Asia Minor and Greece, and was crucified by the Romans in 69 C.E. on an x-shaped cross, because he didn’t feel worthy of being crucified in the same way that Christ was. Similar to the story of Andrew’s brother, St. Peter, who was crucified on an inverted cross.
The use of this symbol on a flag can be traced back to 832 C.E. when the Scottish and Pictish armies were battling against Northumbrian forces for the control over the Lothian region. The night before the battle, St. Andrew supposedly appeared to Angus in a vision, and the next day the saltire appeared in the sky in the form of clouds. They won this battle, and from this time onward, this x-shaped cross would symbolize the Scottish people.
Since then, the saltire has appeared on a number of different flags: The Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, The United Kingdom (combining the Scottish, English, and Irish national flags), and Jamaica to name a few. The most well-known use of the symbol in the United States is what is commonly referred to as the “Confederate” flag. However, that is a bit misleading when you consider that it was never the official flag of the Confederacy. As mentioned by PBS Newshour’s Daniel Costa-Roberts:
“The Confederate States of America went through three different flags during the Civil War, but the battle flag wasn’t one of them. Instead, the flag that most people associate with the Confederacy was the battle flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.”
Lee’s battle flag began to take on a new significance in the 20th century; often in ways completely unrelated to the Civil War. Such as at University of Mississippi football games, veterans events, and even having been flown by Southern U.S. troops (making up nearly half of U.S. forces) in other wars like World War II and the Korean War.
There are also a few U.S. state flags which feature this symbol: being Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The Georgia state flag featured the saltire from 1956-2001 before, ironically, being changed to a flag that heavily resembles the stars and bars–the first official flag of the Confederacy–after the ongoing controversy. The state of Mississippi is still dealing with the same exact controversy of people wanting to change it.
Two lawyers recently deemed the state’s flag as “sending a message of white supremacy” and “state-sanctioned hate speech”. In a hearing before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an attorney in favor of changing the state flag argued that he has legal standing to pursue the case, while lawyers which represent the state argued the opposite. The governor of Mississippi insists that the only people with the authority to reconsider the flag are the voters themselves, and they voted overwhelmingly (64.39%) in favor of keeping the flag in the 2001 referendum.
It is rather ironic that, according to Pew Research, it is the Democrats who overwhelmingly (44%) have a negative reaction to seeing the flag. During the 19th century, the south was governed by the Democratic party who embraced the flag. Also, as recent as the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, there were buttons which featured the battle flag on it. What’s the moral of the story, here? In my opinion, if you have a knee-jerk reaction to a piece of cloth, but not your own political party who actually put forth the policies and codified them into law, you might need a history lesson. For the sake of consistency, maybe we should ban the Democratic party along with a flag that some of them happened to have flown. Is it me, or is this controversy starting to seem a bit ridiculous?
The flag has also appeared in pop culture and entertainment throughout the years. Probably the most famous being The Dukes of Hazzard car named the ‘General Lee’. Many modern day musicians have also displayed this cultural emblem at concerts, as well as having used it on album covers and merchandise. Pantera, Superjoint Ritual, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock, Alabama, Kevin Fowler Band, Hank Williams III, Rebel Son, David Allan Coe, Rebel Meets Rebel–to name a few of my personal favorites. The most notorious of these is probably Dimebag Darrell (Pantera and Rebel Meets Rebel guitarist), who famously used it on one of his signature guitars.
One of the most common arguments you’ll hear is that the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) flies the flag, therefore it is a symbol of hate and must be banned. However, there are many instances of them flying the U.S. national flag. Historically speaking, they have always flown the stars and stripes. If you look at instances such as their 1925 march on Washington, there wasn’t a single battle flag in sight. Instead, they flew the American flag. As the rebel flag began to gain more popularity during the 1950’s, it was then that the KKK adopted it. So does this mean we should also ban our country’s flag? What about the Canadian KKK chapters who flew the British flag? Should that one be banned as well?
The flag is often characterized as a phenomenon exclusive to white people, namely racial supremacists, but this isn’t completely hegemonic. Despite 41% of African Americans reporting negative feelings towards the flag, even more (45%) report feeling indifferent to it. About 10% of black folks report having a positive reaction, compared to just 8% of white people from the same data. Among those who feel positively towards it, there are a number of African-Americans who proudly fly the rebel flag.
Probably the most famous is former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter president out of North Carolina, H.K. Edgerton, who literally marched 1,000 miles across the states–from Asheville, North Carolina to Austin, Texas–to bring attention to what he refers to as a “social-cultural genocide”. He even stated while in Georgia that “…these folks around here who voted to take this flag down who call themselves southern ought to be ashamed of themselves.” In a pro-Confederate flag rally in South Carolina in 2015, he made even stronger statements towards those rallying to remove it:
“If you want to take down a monument, get yourself on up to Washington and drag that criminal, Abraham Lincoln, out to the water.”
Another example of a black man who sports the flag would be people such as Byron Thomas, who gained news coverage for putting it up in his dorm room window at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, sparking a controversy which prompted the university to order him to take it down. Though, he was eventually allowed to put it back up. In his own words: “To me, it’s a heritage thing and a southern pride thing. It’s not a racist thing what-so-ever.” When asked in a 2015 interview on CNN if what happened in Charleston with Dyan Roof has changed his perspective on it as a symbol, he responded with “I refuse to allow his evil-ness to make me feel a different way about my flag.”
Yet another African-American individual who thinks along these lines was the late author, Anthony Hervey of Mississippi, who published a book in 2006 entitled Why I Wave the Confederate Flag, Written By a Black Man. Hervey was a well-known and controversial presence around his hometown of Oxford, MS. He was killed in a car “accident” in July of 2015 on his way back home from a confederate monument rally in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of four or five young black men pulled up beside him and his fellow activist, Arlene Barnum, angrily yelling at them and ultimately causing them to lose control of the vehicle and swerve off of the road. Where is the continuous outcry about this hateful injustice? Non-existent, that’s where.
We should all condemn acts of hatred towards any group of people. The Charleston shooter and the individuals who showed up and made threats to these children, as well as crime directed towards supporters of the Confederacy and flags associated with it. Regardless of how you feel about it as a symbol, we should acknowledge the nuance and respect one another’s first amendment rights to embrace it. This is what makes America the land of the free that all of our ancestors fought, suffered, and often died for.