Responding to public outcry, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina is reportedly planning to remove the confederate battle flag posted in front of the state house. The decision, which comes less than a week after 21 year-old Dylann Roof killed nine black worshipers at a historic black church in Charleston, has saddened bigots and southern apologists all across the country.
Whining that their flag is “history, not hate,” defenders actually demonstrate an epic ignorance of history and show why its removal from state capitols is so necessary and overdue.
Here is the first flag of the confederacy. Known as the Stars and Bars, this is a southern banner that one might reasonably call “historic,” as it represents the actual Confederate States of America at the time when they set out to keep black people in their “natural and moral condition” of slavery. Note how the rectangular design evokes the flag of the United States from which it is modeled.
Flown during combat to help men maintain formation in the din and gunsmoke-wrapped chaos, the confederate battle flag is a square, not a rectangle. Only the Confederate Navy used a rectangular battle flag, and the only reason why rectangular ones have become so common among southern partisans in the modern era is that manufacturers prefer to cut all their flags in a single size. “History, not hate” is a vapid phrase that deliberately glosses over this key point: whether square or rectangular, the confederate battle flag had virtually disappeared from popular culture when it was revived as a symbol of white supremacy during the Civil Rights Era, embodying the negative social reaction to political equality.
The War of Southern Aggression was a deluded enterprise from the start, for the rich white plantation owners who seceded from the union did not secure the logistical and material means of support necessary for an extended conflict before they began to wage it. Lacking access to raw materials, horses and mules, manpower, and industrial capacity, the founding fathers of the confederacy picked a fight they could not possibly win, and which they did inevitably lose. These material deficiencies produced many of the desperate military innovations for which the South became most famous. For example, the primitive submarine Hunley was built to compensate for Charleston’s lack of ship cannons, not because southerners were especially courageous or inventive. As the weight of the union’s material superiority began to crush the South through blockades and battles during 1863, especially in the western theater along the Mississippi River, the confederate national flag was altered — not just out of spite for the union, but also to make less use of expensive, and increasingly unavailable, color dyes. The Second Confederate Flag looked so much like a white symbol of surrender, however, that the Confederate Navy lobbied to have a red stripe added to the fly end, producing the Third Confederate Flag as seen below.
This, too, would be a “historic” confederate flag, so it is very telling that we almost never see anyone flying this one while discussing their hateful “heritage.” No one ever lobbies to have it flown over a southern capitol. Instead, southern partisans always want to raise the battle flag, a symbol of majoritarian violence, as the sign of their “freedom.” Just as in 1861, the “freedom” being exalted is the right to rule over other people with the blessings of the state, which is just about the most anti-freedom, un-American agenda imaginable.
In defeat, those rich white slave owners needed to explain away their pigheaded defense of “property” to the hundreds of thousands of bereaved white families whose sons and husbands had been sacrificed at their behest. Thus the rationalizing myth of a war fought for “states’ rights” was born after the fighting was over. It was nonsense, of course, because in the years before the war the southern states had relentlessly tried to enforce their Fugitive Slave Acts and other legislation on the unwilling free states from their power-base in Congress. The happy falsehood of southern “freedom fighters” nevertheless endures to this day, providing a thin veneer of respectability that most media organizations are never willing to examine, much less penetrate. But to see past these lies, all you really have to do is look at which flag they’re flying.