I am a proud Southerner. That is why you will never see me display the Confederate flag. Now, I do not pretend to have plumbed the depths of the debate over the flag, but I do believe that symbols hold the meanings we give them. For some, the flag represents Southern heritage; for others, the flag represents the oppression of African Americans. In the latter camp myself, I also believe the flag represents bad memory.
Soon after the Civil War ended, white Southerners began promulgating the so-called “Lost Cause,” a literary movement and attitude that entailed a sacralization of Southern history and an apology for the Confederate cause. For Lost Cause writers, the Confederate flag represented a host of ideas. For example, Southerners venerated Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in an attempt to show that Southerners had been more virtuous than their Northern counterparts. The flag also honored Confederate soldiers who, the argument went, were not bested by a superior Union army, but were worn down by the North’s seemingly endless supply of men and resources. The list could go on, but there is one tenet of the Lost Cause that remains disturbingly relevant in light of current events. Lost Causers insisted that the war had not been fought over the issue of slavery.
Even while repudiating the notion that slavery could be identified with the Confederate cause, Lost Causers peppered their writings with racist rhetoric. Some writers, like Richmond journalist E. A. Pollard, unabashedly advocated for white supremacy in the postwar South. Only through white hegemony, Pollard reasoned, could Southerners preserve their distinctive identity. There were also racist undertones in the writings of other Lost Cause architects, like those of former Confederate generals Jubal A. Early and William N. Pendleton. Southern Baptists got in on the act as well. J. William Jones, Confederate chaplain and prominent Baptist minister, did as much as any veteran to apotheosize Confederate leaders and laud the virtues of the Confederate army.
Today’s proponents of displaying the Confederate flag use a number of justifications. Perhaps the most well-known mantra argues that the flag symbolizes “heritage, not hate.” Advocates maintain that if detractors would simply study the history books, they would understand why Southerners are reticent to furl the banner. On this point, the proponents are actually correct. At present, the Confederate flag represents the persistent effort — now over 150 years old — to ignore the pervasiveness of racism. To display the Confederate flag is to deny the centrality of race as a cause of human conflict. When proponents hoist the flag under the pretense of history, they tap into a history of consciously excluding race from the conversation. That is what Lost Causers wanted. The resiliency of the Lost Cause mythology is evident in that we still debate whether or not race belongs in a conversation about the Confederate flag.
If you will forgive the analogy, Lost Causers embodied the advice of Mad Men’s Don Draper, who advised, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” That is exactly what Lost Cause writers did. And in a feat of advertisement and public manipulation that would make Don Draper proud, Lost Causers sold most Southerners, and even some Northerners, a Confederate flag drained of the racial elements that had led to its inception.
There are so many reasons to be proud as a Southerner. Four years of open rebellion and over four million slaves are not those reasons. Why must we as Southerners defend and display the one symbol that celebrates the worst aspects of our history? Yes, we would be remiss to forget that story, for there is more to learn from history’s mistakes than from history’s successes. But the flag can remind us of these things while behind glass at a museum. Displaying the flag at our homes, on bumper stickers, or at state buildings is not an effort to mourn the worst scenes of our past, but to glorify them. Can we not find a new symbol, one that embraces the diversity of the South, instead of one that can only be viewed as a commemoration of an exclusively white Southern heritage?
I do not think that everyone who displays the Confederate flag hates African Americans. Neither do I think, though, that displayers are really honoring their heritage. Instead, they are honoring bad memory, and following in the footsteps of postwar Southerners who willfully misremembered the South’s story. To our shame we bought that story, accepting as “fact” the illusion that race belongs on the periphery of historical discussion. Fortunately, we do not have to be satisfied with what is being said any longer. Now is the time to take down the flag. Now is the time to change the conversation.