'The Confederate Flag Means Segregation.'

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good post up on those who defend their desire to fly the Confederate flag as an affirmation of heritage and not an open expression of hate:

It may well be true that Alabama’s desire to fly the Confederate flag at the state capitol, or the desire of many Alabamans to use it themselves as they see fit, has nothing to do with the fact that the state was the last to drop its (unenforceable) prohibition against interracial marriage (in 2000!). It may be a mere coincidence that the only people to oppose the Alabama repeal were leaders of the states’ “Confederate heritage group.”  But if the flag’s defenders aren’t racist (which I can accept) the necessary conclusion, while banal and common, isn’t anymore comforting–a shocking ignorance of one’s own history.

As someone who grew up around Confederate flags and the white folks who love them (Southern by the grace of God, as they say), I can attest to this: most of these kids (and their parents) are scarcely aware of their history.  They have romanticized their Confederate ancestors as noble defenders of independence, and while that’s in some sense understandable (no one likes to think poorly of their ancestors), it does ignore the fact that the Confederacy was explicitly founded on a theology of divinely-ordained white supremacy.

What’s more, even the “heritage” defense betrays a deep ignorance of history; although the Confederate flag (in various incarnations) was flown throughout Reconstruction and into the 20th century, the Confederate flag as we recognize it (the “stars and bars) didn’t come into popular use until the 1950s and the beginning of federally-mandated desegregation, where it was used primarily to signal opposition to desegregation.  Insofar that it was supposed to represent Southern “heritage,” it was a sign that the flyer respected the long-standing Southern tradition of apartheid and racial violence.  As historian John Hoski explains in his book on the subject, this was a pretty explicit sentiment:

Roy V. Harris, the recently retired speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives and editor of the Augusta Courier, minced no words in linking the threat to his embrace of the Confederate flag in 1951.  ”The Confederate flag is coming to mean something to everybody now.  It means the southern cause.  It means the heart throbs of the people of the South. It is becoming to be [sic] the symbol of the white race and the cause of white people.  The Confederate flag means segregation.”

Honestly, I’d be a lot more comfortable with people who flew the Confederate flag if stopped they simply acknowledged that the flag represents apartheid and white supremacy; it’s not a pleasant history, but it’s history, and Confederate flag-loving white Southerners ought to accept that.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Julian

    It’s actually kind of a shame that that’s one of the only universally-recognized symbols of Southernness. I lived in North Carolina for about 10 years and knew a bunch of people who had Confederate bumper stickers or hats. Not many flew the actual flag… it was more like they were treating it as a brand, a marker of real, pure, unashamed Southern identity. The area I lived in was very politically progressive (for NC) and had a lot of people who worked to mask their accents and scoffed at the “hicks” in the next town. So the guys in high school who hunted, fished, mud raced, spoke as they were raised, etc- a lot of them had these flags on their trucks. Granted, a lot of them weren’t particularly exposed to other cultures and races — there’s a funny/sad story about this guy using the word “colored” with literally no idea that it wasn’t cool (not to mention, uh, current) — but they certainly didn’t support segregation, white power, even implicitly. I think a lot of them saw it as just another Nascar symbol or Chevy logo.

    Of course that’s where TNC’s point comes in- this is a symbol that cannot and should not be divorced from its history, and the fact that these guys didn’t know what they were suggesting to a lot of people is a problem in istelf. But careless stereotyping of Southerners is so widespread, these guys were just clinging that much tighter to the only cultural identifiers they knew in defense. Rather than hiding their accent, they went 180 degrees and embraced this symbol in spite of (and in a few cases probably because of) controversy.

    The flag needs to be retired. But it would certainly leave a legitimate void.

  • Scott

    I think it is sad that the Battle Flag which is what was flag is, was was hijacked by the segregationists for their use. However, I don’t understand the upset about the Battle Flag as slavery existed far longer under the American Stars and Stripes than it ever did under any of the CSA’s flags and yet no one says the Stars and Stripes is a symbol of racism. Maybe Obama should suggest that we redesign the American flag given all of the human rights violations that have occurred beneath it?

  • Tylo


    Check out today’s news
    7 Year old shot in Mistaken trespassing.

    “Although they were not on private property, they were still too close to the property of Sheila Muhs, 45, and her husband, Gayle Muhs, also 45. According to teh Houston Chronicle, the Muhs live in a small house on stilts with a rebel flag flying from the roof”

    Once again, the rebel flag is used by hateful, ignorant people.

  • War Eagle

    We recently had an “issue” here in Auburn, Alabama. An African-American city councilman picked up several Rebel battle flags that some little old ladies had left on Confederate veterans’ graves.

    This was not a subject that attracted the attention of local folks. My kids said that no one at school even raised the topic. Nobody talked about it in Sunday School (where we argue merrily about sports and politics) or in my book group. It wasn’t important to most people in our town. But, Lord, did we attract the attention of some crazy out-of-town flag-wavers, the most outraged of whom was from Long Island and had ZERO connection to the South.

    My ancestors have been in Lee County, Alabama for nearly 200 years. Some owned other human beings and some fought in the Civil War.

    However, I was in Philadelphia, Mississippi the summer the three young civil rights workers were killed — by rebel-flag guys. A former student of my father found Emmett Till’s body, and there were certainly lots of rebel flags that showed up at Roy Bryant’s trial.

    Some guy picking up sticks and bits of cloth is pretty low on my outrage scale.

    I get outraged by childhood hunger in my state. I get outraged because lives in my county are being destroyed by meth. I get outraged because Northern timber companies own so much of Alabama and pay no taxes. I get outraged because my neighbor’s “little boy” had his legs blown off in Iraq.

    The Civil War ended nearly a century-and-a-half ago. We lost. I think we can move on now.

  • Karen


    Wow dude… wtf? This flag is a symbol of slavery and racism. It is a disgrace to our nation that anyone would want to fly it, but it is of course their right. Just know that when others see it flown proudly, we will see the owner of that flag as a bigot and will find it in incredibly bad taste.

    The Nazis existed before they became associated with Hitler, but now the two are forever connected in the minds of everyone in this world. The confederate flag and its association to slavery and segregation isn’t any different. It is representative a shameful history. Plus, the south lost. Get rid of your damn flag. I’m not super patriotic but how disrespectful to this country to fly the losing sides flag at government buildings.



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