Flag Waving Down South. How Long?: Battling an 'Inappropriate Display'

By Earl T. Shinhoster

Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, pp. 12-13

[Editor's Note:]On February 2, 1988, fourteen black legislators were arrested in Alabama as they symbolically attempted to scale a fence to remove from the dome of the state capitol the Confederate flag which flies there. The resulting misdemeanor convictions are being appealed, but the incident brought into focus renewed efforts to remove symbols of slavery and segregation from public places. In the essays below, various Southerners speak their minds about the meaning and significance of this controversial symbol.

The Confederacy lives in the hearts and minds of the people of the Southland and the United States of America. Symbols are hard to die and harder still to demystify. In March 1987, the delegates to the Southeast Region NAACP Leadership Conference, meeting in Greenville, S.C., passed a resolution calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flags that fly atop state capitol buildings in Alabama and South Carolina and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the official state flags in Mississippi and Georgia. The NAACP views the continued present display and misuse of the Confederate battle flag as an act of defiance and resistance of a defeated cause and vanquished philosophy. This symbol, the captured Confederate battle flag, is said to be the symbol of a people who fought against tyranny and for independence. That it represents the heritage and culture of the Southland and flies today as a tribute and memorial to those who sacrificed their lives for a cause. Indeed, the War of Rebellion--the Civil War between 1861-1865, was nothing short of America's own holocaust. Over 600,000 men in gray and blue gave their lives. One of every four Southern white males between the ages of 18 and 40 died.

Historians disagree over the causes of secession and the war. Some suggest that the war was fought over the issue of Southern independence from a tyrannical majority, while others suggest that the issue was preservation of the Union. Regardless, the question of African slavery and the economic advantages and disadvantages created by the "peculiar institution" is interwoven into any full discussion of the war's causes. In fact, the course of the war was greatly affected by the presence and role of the African slaves and free Africans in the South and North.

The Civil War has been over for 125 years, yet the spirit of the Confederacy lives in the hearts and minds of many--fueled by the constant reminder of Confederate flags that fly as expressions of public policy and that are waved as symbols by racists and white supremacists. This is an inappropriate display and misuse of the "captured


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battle flag" of the Civil War. The legislative history dealing with the return of the captured battle flags of the Confederacy and Union, dating back to the administrations of Grover Cleveland in 1888 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, envisioned the resumed Confederate battle flags to be placed in historical societies or state museums--places appropriate for memorialization--not incorporated into official state flags, run up flagpoles or to enrich trinket makers. The current use of the Confederate battle flags is more in line with the ideology of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest who, ignoring General Robert E. Lee's request at Appomattox to furl and surrender the battle flag, unfurled [it as a part of the] organization of the Ku Klux Klan.

This odious symbol of a bygone era [was revived] as an act of defiance and resistance against the United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the resultant movement toward equality of rights and opportunities for African-Americans and actualization of constitutional guarantees of freedom and justice for all Americans. When public policy is aligned and embedded with the philosophy and symbols of defiance, then all institutional policies and actions are tainted by the perversion of the lost cause.

Governors, political leaders, white and, yes, some black and many honest and sincere citizens, view our campaign to remove Confederate flags from official state flags and those which fly over state capitols as divisive and exacerbating racial tensions. Moreover, it is suggested that other priorities focusing on human needs and concerns are more compelling today. There is no question but that the NAACP is vigorously pursuing an agenda which encompasses more than this single issue. Daily, our branches struggle with survival issues and advancement concerns. Yet, we are convinced that in the area of human relations, no single act could have a more profound effect in establishing a lasting climate of mutual trust and respect among people than removing from the public policy arena, and placing in a state museum or other appropriate place of display, the Confederate battle flag.

Yes, unfortunately, the Confederate flag would continue to live in the hearts and minds of many. People would continue to wave the Confederate battle flag and flag makers would no doubt increase their business. However, the state governments would have made a strong statement for reconciliation and racial harmony.

The NAACP urges the state legislatures in Georgia and Mississippi to move boldly and courageously to change their present state flags--remove the Confederate flags and adopt a symbol that truly represents all of the people of the states. Further, the states of Alabama and South Carolina should, by act of the legislature, or otherwise, furl the battle flag and let it rest in a place more appropriate to historical remembrance.

Earl T. Shinhoster is the Southeastern regional director for the NAACP.