As a guy who grew up in a community whose neighborhood high school was dripping with symbols of the Confederacy, I’m all too familiar with folks who defend the Confederate flag with claims that it represents “heritage, not hate.”
History, of course, doesn’t leave much room for this argument.
From the 1940’s to the 1960’s, white supremacist political groups in the South, championing segregation and fighting in opposition to the Civil Rights movement, chose for themselves a now infamous symbol: the Southern Cross.
Also known as the Stars and Bars, this was a flag originally flown by the Army of Northern Virginia.
Later, it became the most visually distinctive portion of the third and final flag of the Confederate States of America (below), and so is popularly known today simply as the Confederate flag.
To bridge the gap in the flag’s history between the Civil War and its use in the backlash against the Civil Rights movement, Libby Nelson provides helpful context at Vox.com:
The civil rights movement didn’t change the flag’s meaning — it simply made the hate underlying the heritage more explicit. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, white Southerners used the Confederate flag to intimidate civil rights activists and demonstrate states’ willingness to protect segregation at all costs.
The flag no longer represented just a 19th-century battle to preserve white supremacy, but a 20th-century one as well.
The KKK waved the Confederate flag. So did the Citizens’ Councils, white supremacist groups of prominent and successful people who opposed integration. White mobs at the University of Alabama carried Confederate flags when they threw rocks at Autherine Lucy, the university’s first black student, before the university decided to expel her rather than protect her. Mobs fighting to protect segregated schools wore Confederate flags in Little Rock and New Orleans and Austin and Birmingham.
It’s an ugly symbol, with the ugliest of origins.
Of course, for many of my generation, Generation X, the first encounter with this symbol came via a popular TV show of our youth, The Dukes of Hazard, where it was splashed across the top of an extremely cool car (we thought) — The General Lee.
I can’t have been the only kid in the early 80’s who sat at the steering wheel of one of his parents’ parked cars — with all the windows rolled entirely down — pretending I was Bo or Luke Duke speeding around Hazard County, jumping creeks, and tormenting the likes of Boss Hogg and Sheriff Rosco P. Coletrane.
In fact, along with a Hot Wheels knock-off of Speed Racer’s Mach 5, a small, die cast General Lee was my most prized toy car.
So, from an early age, a Trojan Horse of sorts had slipped through the gates of my generation’s subconscious, inviting us to become sympathetic to the view that the Confederate flag was about “heritage, not hate.”
For some of us, I think this goes a long way in explaining the popularity the Confederate flag still enjoys today. And why many insist the flag has never represented racism to them.
But back to my high school alma mater, South Garland High School (established in 1964), which, as I’ve mentioned, was absolutely drenched in symbols of the Confederacy.
South Garland’s mascot was a Civil War “Southern Colonel.” Its school song was “Dixie.” Its school flag was the Confederate flag (modified only so that the school shield could be displayed across its middle).
And its school shield — named without irony, the Libertas — was designed to boast yet another Confederate flag within.
At school pep rallies, our cheerleaders would lead chants of, “The South. The South. The South shall rise again!” And in our school cafeteria was a wall covered with a hand-painted mural of a southern plantation — complete with apparent slaves working the fields.
Even today, some 20 years after the Confederate flag was officially removed at South Garland High School, this tile display of the school shield remains outside the school’s main offices, a gift from the Senior class of 1968.
But the history of the Confederate flag at South Garland High School took a peculiar twist in 1990, my Senior year, when an African American student was chosen (by front office staff, I believe) to be our class’s Colonel mascot. This meant he would don a Confederate Colonel’s uniform and wave our school’s Confederate flag at football games and pep rallies.
I never spoke with him about it at the time. And, sadly, he’s dead now. So I can’t claim to know whether his decision to pursue and then accept being our school’s mascot was an act of defiance, of humor, maybe both — or something else entirely.
I know this: a popular and extremely well-liked black student wearing a Confederate uniform and waving a Confederate flag to chants of “The South shall rise again!” made it much easier for a predominantly white student body in a Texas suburb to embrace the perceived “heritage” of that symbol, and not the “hate.”
Yes, a peculiar twist.
Today my perspective is 20/20. I see all the bad seeds that were planted in pop culture and in southern communities like mine.
And I understand that those seeds, symbols like the Confederate flag, were placed there by the politics of white supremacy.
Shamefully, they’ve been allowed to survive decades in the civic sphere: atop state capitol buildings; on state college campuses; at taxpayer maintained cemeteries and memorials; and at public schools like mine.
There they acquired cultural camouflage. And were conflated with otherwise harmless feelings, like regional pride or school spirit.
Until generations of kids began to view them — sincerely (in many cases), but ignorantly — as “heritage” instead of “hate.”
The time to placate ignorance has passed.