In the wake of last week’s horrifying tragedy in Charleston, SC, there has been a long overdue widespread discussion about public displays of the Confederate Battle Flag. I’m reluctant to add to the conversation because it’s becoming cacophonous and I’m generally in line with those who believe that the flag, like the Confederacy it represents, is inseparable from its white supremacist origins (there have been an absolute flood of articles and think-pieces about the flag since the shooting, some of which are excellent, but I’ll just recommend Jon Coski’s wonderful book on the flag). Since then, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has called for the removal of the flag in Columbia and, last night, Mississippi House speaker Philip Gunn requested a redesign of the state flag to eliminate the Confederate emblem. What truly shocked me, though, was Walmart and Ebay stating they will no longer carry any products that display the flag. With this development, the issue moved into the realm of popular culture and I thought I’d chime in on that score.
I’ve always been opposed to government buildings or institutions displaying the flag. The fact of the matter is, even if you think the flag’s white supremacist associations share space with other interpretations, you still have to acknowledge that white supremacy is in there somewhere and, thus, any government using the flag in an official capacity is implicitly endorsing white supremacy. However, personal use of the flag is more complicated, or at least has been for about the past half century. In that regard, what Walmart is doing opens two new lines of inquiry concerning the appropriation and display of the flag.
The first is whether or not a corporation carries a similar risk of being labeled as white supremacist for stocking products that use the flag. A true analogy with the situations in South Carolina and Mississippi would be a corporation that incorporates the flag into its logo or brand (as Dixie Outfitters has done), but just selling Confederate-related items is a different animal. As above, I think the association is ultimately inescapable but I also think it doesn’t really matter. A corporation–especially a huge multinational one like Walmart–simply cannot afford to tolerate such a potentially negative image. The general public now opposes those symbols, so any corporation that wants to minimize its losses should abandon them. In effect, stocking items with Confederate flag imagery is always more of a practical decision than a moral one for something like Walmart.
The second, however, is where my interest truly lies. In removing Confederate flags from its inventory, Walmart is indirectly suggesting that its customers should not display it, and that introduces a host of issues. While I agree the flag is inherently linked to white supremacy and had been so since its creation, something strange happened to it in the latter half of the twentieth century. Although the flag was reintroduced to American culture broadly speaking during the Civil Rights Movement as a symbol of white massive resistance, modern media allowed the image to spread rapidly, leading to multiple appropriations that had little direct connection to segregation or white supremacy. The 1960s counter-culture–ironically, partially founded on support for the Civil Rights Movement–was the first movement to adopt it, especially biker culture. Among this subset of Baby Boomers, the flag simply represented resistance to authority–government authority, in particular–which was significant for a group that increasingly coalesced around opposition to the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before popular culture started reflecting this appropriation. I’d argue the two most significant cases of this were The Dukes of Hazzard and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s use of the flag in their live shows.
While there is a strong “pro-southern” aspect to both Skynyrd and Hazzard, and both clearly define southern as “white southern,” I wouldn’t say either were overtly white supremacist. Like other personal and public uses of the flag at the time, they tried to reduce the flag, and thus the Confederacy it stood for, to one of its root elements: southern rebellion. I think this is what most people are talking about (or at least those outside of the neo-Confederate or Confederate heritage movements) when they say the flag isn’t racist. The problem with this interpretation, however, is it makes the same mistake defenders of the Confederacy from Jefferson Davis on up made for decades. Reducing the Confederacy to a simple rebellion against government authority defines the failed nation by its means, not its ends. The Confederates did not feel they were being broadly oppressed by the federal government, they simply feared the new Lincoln administration would threaten one specific freedom: slavery. If you don’t believe me, just read what they said at the time–they left little room for doubt (as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have recently pointed out). So, like Walmart and South Carolina today, many people realized the symbol was simply too historically loaded to adopt without consequence and it increasingly faded from popular culture. It had been in retreat for some time before hitting a stalemate around the turn of the millennium, and now recent events have finished the job of pushing official displays of the flag out of public spaces.
The argument will likely move now toward personal use of the flag and whether or not, as John Oliver suggests, displaying it makes you a jerk. Personal expression is a fundamental part of American freedom, so I certainly wouldn’t endorse any attempt to ban displays of the flag by private citizens. However, I think it’s clear now that the majority of Americans understand that the flag is rooted in the ugly history of white supremacy and attempts during the past 150 years to erase that association have failed. It is what it is and, if you want to make it a part of your personal image, you need to understand that. What it represents to you personally doesn’t really matter, or at least isn’t all that matters. It’s clear most people think the flag means what the Confederates themselves thought it meant: that blacks have no rights that whites are bound to respect. I hope more comes out of the aftermath of the Charleston shooting than just movement against the flag, but in the short term it’s at least established that everyone is at least aware that the flag has these connotations and will think about them before adopting it even superficially.