The young white supremacist who admitted to committing the crime was seen posing with the Confederate flag in earlier social media postings. And, although the rebel flag has long been a symbol used by white supremacist organizations, it was the actions of Dylann Roof that sparked a backlash against the flag.
After the governor of South Carolina declared that the Confederate flag should be removed from government property and placed in a museum some states, including Alabama and Mississippi, followed suit. On June 23 Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the removal of four Confederate flags from the state capitol, declaring them a “distraction from greater issues” and on July 10 the rebel flag was removed from the Statehouse in Columbia, SC.
But the backlash hasn’t stopped with the removal of the flag. In some places, including Birmingham, other monuments to the Confederacy have also come under fire. Petitions to have the Jefferson Davis memorials removed from Linn Park in Birmingham and on Canal Street in New Orleans have been issued to their respective governments.
Some are asking is it too far to remove other relics representing Civil War history? Is America trying to progress toward positive racial relations or to erase a piece of troubling history?
While the controversy surrounding these artifacts permeates the country, citizens remain deadlocked. Slightly more than half of the U.S. views items including the Confederate flag and the monuments as reminders of the South’s history and the men who fought for their beliefs, and the other half views any and all objects from or about the Confederacy as symbols of hatred and racism.
A poll by CNN shows the exact percentage of division on the subject. Overall, about 57 percent of Americans view the flag and its counterparts as a symbol of Southern pride, as opposed to a symbol of racism. Digging deeper into the divide, the poll shows that, while 72 percent of African Americans see the flag and its counterparts as a symbol of racism, only 25 percent of whites agree.
CNN’s study also shows that among whites with a college degree, 51 percent believe the relics represent symbols of pride, but 41 percent view Confederate symbols as racist. Among whites without a college degree, 73 percent say Southern pride, and 18 percent say racism.
A history lesson
One element often lost in the debate of heritage versus hate is from the actual history of the Confederacy. There are those who argue that the War Between the States was fought over states’ rights, the Confederate States Constitution makes it clear that the Southern states were fighting for their rights to keep African Americans as slaves.
The CSA Constitution, which is available for perusal online, bears many similarities to the US Constitution. But it differs in how it refers to slavery:
“In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”
“During the Civil War, the Southern states, they were fighting for states’ rights because they didn’t want to give all power to the federal government,” said Pamela King, a professor and Civil War historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “But most of those states’ rights that they fought for, whether it was tax nullification or anything else, revolved around their ability to expand slavery because the politics going against slavery were in the hands of the federal government. And the South did not want to entrust their rights in the hands of the federal government.”
Russell Hare, chief of staff of the Birmingham chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the four Confederate flags were created to represent the South’s unity against the North when flown during battle. They include the first national flag (“Stars and Bars”), the second national flag (“Stainless Banner”), the third national flag (“Blood Stained Banner”) and the most familiar Battle flag the “Southern Cross”. The flags were raised on the Alabama State Capitol grounds in 1961 by order of Gov. John Patterson. According to Hare the flags were raised to serve as a memorial to the soldiers who fought during the Civil War and to serve as a reminder of those who lost their lives for the cause.
Jefferson Davis was a lieutenant in the United States Army, United States Secretary of War from 1853-1857 and elected President of the Confederate States of America in 1861. According to the Birmingham Parks Department, the monument to Davis in Linn Park was officially completed in 1905 and was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
A new civil war — over the old one
The heat of the controversy has brought to the fore strongly held but opposing viewpoints.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans brought a pro-flag rally to the Capitol in Montgomery June 27, protesting the removal of the Confederate flag from government property. “I love all people,” Sherry Butler Clayton, a pro-flag rally member, told AL.com. “It’s not a black/white issue. It’s a heritage issue.”
On the other side of the spectrum and on the same day, a South Carolina woman, Brittany (Bree) Byuarium, climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the flag from flying full mast.
Meanwhile, Vestavia Hills High School announced plans to change their mascot from a rebel soldier dressed in Confederate colors for the first time since the school opened in 1970, prompting a community meeting which 200 people attended to offer divided opinions on the subject. Televised news reports suggested that threats were made because of the decision.
“I personally don’t care if we change the mascot because you shouldn’t let a symbol be the meaning of Southern pride,” said Jill Jackson, a former Vestavia High School student. “If you actually have Southern pride it won’t go away because of a flag or a character.”
On the other side of the debate, former Vestavia student Michael O’Neal told CBS he opposes the change. “A Confederate flag, with its direct ties to racism, taking down that flag is drawing a line,” he said. “But when you starting to bicker over a caricature, you’re not drawing lines anymore. You’re splitting hairs.”
Sheila Phillips, superintendent of Vestavia Hills City Schools, released this statement about the alteration of VHHS’s mascot: “We recognize that our high school’s mascot is a point of contention for some members of our community… We will be responsive to this significant issue and give it the attention it rightfully deserves. As we do so, we will strive to be respectful to and mindful of the best interests of all of our students, the proud history of Vestavia Hills High School, and the bright future of our school district.”
It was announced last week that Texas plans to issue social studies textbooks that downplay slavery as a cause for the Civil War and do not mention Jim Crow laws, which after the defeat of the Confederacy were enacted to ensure legal white supremacy in the South. Eleventh grade U.S. History teacher Samantha Manchac of Houston told NPR the new materials are “definitely an attempt in many instances to whitewash our history, as opposed to exposing students to the reality of things and letting them make decisions for themselves.”
On June 23, Amazon, Sears, Walmart and Ebay announced they would pull all merchandise related to the Confederacy from their stores, which resulted in a dramatic rise in sales for such items, according to USA Today. Dukes of Hazzard reruns have been pulled from some television networks because of the Confederate flag emblem on the roof of the show’s Dodge Charger the General Lee.
Politically correct or incorrect?
Not wanting to be left out of the debate, presidential candidates are putting in their two cents. On the subject of removing the Confederate flag, Senator Paul Thurmond, R-SC, spoke to the Senate about taking the flag down: “I believe the ground is fertile for us to make progress as a state and to come together and remove the Confederate battle flag from that prominent statue outside the Statehouse and put it in a museum. It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work towards a better future. That future must be built on symbols of peace, love, and unity. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness.”
Former senator and potential presidential candidate Jim Webb, D-Va., has remained vague on whether he officially supports the flag’s removal. Asked if he would call for Virginia’s Confederate flags to come down, Webb said it was “complicated.” On Webb’s Facebook page he wrote:
“The Confederate flag has wrongly been used for racist and other purposes in recent decades. It should not be used in any way as a political symbol that divides us. But we should also remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War, including slave holders in the Union Army from states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, and that many non-slave holders fought for the South. It was in recognition of the character of soldiers on both sides that the federal government authorized the construction of the Confederate Memorial 100 years ago, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. This is a time for us to come together, and to recognize once more that our complex multicultural society is founded on the principle of mutual respect. ”
Many citizens in Birmingham report they believe Confederate monuments have nothing to do with the present day and serve as ugly souvenirs from the past. Hezekiah Jackson, president of the Metro Birmingham branch of the NAACP, said that the removal of the Confederate flag is long overdue.
“I know leaders in the NAACP all throughout South Carolina that for the past 15 years have fought to have the flag removed,” Jackson said. “When you are talking about a symbol of racism, of bigotry, any kind of symbol that is depictive of depriving another human being in the United States of their liberty, there’s a huge problem when you see that symbol waving outside your capitol building.”
“There is no more Confederacy,” historian Pamela King said. “The Confederacy was abolished at the end of the Civil War, so it makes no rational sense to have a flag on government property that represents something that doesn’t exist anymore. Through [Dylann Roof’s] terrible actions, he has reminded everyone how ridiculous it is that we still honor a flag that represents nothing but a terrible past.”
Russell Hare disagreed, saying that the mission of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is to “preserve the history and legacy of Confederate heroes” and that the removal of any Confederate memorial is a slap in the face to their fallen soldiers.
“First our flags and now our memorials,” he said. “Confederate memorials all across the South were erected, most over a century ago, by the sons and daughters of the soldiers of the Southern Confederacy. They were erected to honor their fathers who fought and died to protect their homes and families from an invading army… Dishonoring my ancestors who fought in that war is no different than dishonoring those who fought in the Revolutionary War, or World War 1, or World War 2, or Vietnam.”
In his view removing such a memorial is like desecrating the grave of a veteran.
“Removing our flags from a veterans’ memorial is like spitting on their grave. Removing the memorial itself is like knocking down their headstone. What’s next? Will they dig them up and scatter their bones? How far will their bitter hatred for our ancestors take them?”
Hare contends that despite the attitudes of those who view the Confederate flag as “hurtful” only those who sympathize with the Confederacy can pass judgment. “ I personally believe that people can only say what the flag means to them. And I believe the only people who have the right to say what the flag really means are the soldiers of the Southern Confederacy. And to them the flag stands for resistance to tyranny, the sacrifice of their comrades that fell at battle; it represents home, family, freedom. It’s an honorable symbol and taking it down is just again a huge dishonor.”
Where does it end?
It remains unclear how far the backlash against symbols of the Confederacy will go. Some see the debate leading somewhere positive, while others expect the opposite.
“I believe that the recent events that have taken place allow us a great opportunity to move for change and progress,” said Jackson of the NAACP. “It is so unfortunate that it takes a tragedy like [the South Carolina shootings] to remind us that we are all traveling and working together. In the state of Alabama we need to start focusing on common ground. We have all spent too much time highlighting our differences and I believe this is a grand opportunity to focus on unity and common ground.
“At the end of the day I believe symbols are very important and where some may say [these items] have historical significance, [the NAACP] don’t disagree! But we believe they belong in a museum or in the instance of the flag that you can fly it at your home. But it should not be in public places that are symbols of unity.”
Hare said, on the other hand, that unity has been threatened by the removal of the flag. “I see the taking down of the flag as an act to break up the Southern unity that we have had in the past,” Hare said. “After the tragedy in Charleston, the response was everyone in the South came together and was shocked and saddened by these terrible events, as was the case with the Ferguson and Baltimore cases. Southerners came together immediately in Christian fellowship and we had unity. We wept for these people and our hearts went out to them. By taking the flag down, you’re taking away a symbol of standing together as a unit.”
King said that, while respecting Southern heritage is important, removal of relics such as the Confederate flag is a sign of winning the war against racism. “There’s no doubt that the flag represents southern heritage,” King said. “Being a historian, more than being a southerner, I certainly get that. The war was such a powerful event and we should of course study it and respect it. But the South fought it with backwards thinking. And backwards thinking is what, to me, the flag represents.
“The analogy I use for my class is it’s like going into a job interview and being asked, ‘Do you know how to use a computer?’ and you answer, ‘No but I can use a typewriter.’ It’s just time to move forward and take the flag down.”
She takes a different stance on the Jefferson Davis memorial in Linn Park. “I’d prefer to keep it and have another sign, perhaps, next to it explaining why [and] when it was put up,” she says. “History like that in the public space is important and informative and should not be easily sanitized.”
The ultimate fate of the monument remains undetermined.
“The only thing that has been done is that on July 1 the board decided to pass the task of researching any legal hindrances to removing the memorial. At this time there has not been a definite decision, said ” Stanley Robinson, public relations coordinator for the Birmingham Parks and Recreation Board. Robinson also explained that the topic of removing the memorial is not a heat-of-the-moment discussion and has been on the table in the past.