The Confederate Flag, America's Most Controversial Symbol

As part of Museum Studies Week, John Coski presented a lecture on Sept. 29 about the Confederate flag, “America’s Most Controversial Symbol.” Coski is the Historian and Vice President of Research and Publications for the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA.

The museum’s extensive collection can be divided into three main categories. The first section of the museum acknowledges the flag’s history as a wartime symbol, the second section describes the flag’s emergence into popular culture and its changing meaning, and the third section recognizes the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag. This third section gives voice to each of the different perspectives surrounding the symbolism regarding the flag.

The flag that most people regard as the Confederate flag (with the red background, blue “X,” and white stars) was once used as a battle flag by a few Confederate Army units. It is a common mistake for people to refer to this flag as the “Stars and Bars,” the flag that was used to represent the Confederate nation. The actual Stars and Bars flag was very similar to that of the Union, with three horizontal stripes, one white between two red, and a blue square in the top left corner containing a white star for each state in the Confederacy.

The Stars and Bars flag was a way for the Confederate states to wean themselves from the North. They did not want to surrender their national symbol to the Union; however, the similar flags eventually caused problems in battle for the soldiers when trying to distinguish between army units. The battle flag recognized today as the flag of the Confederacy was eventually adopted as the national Confederate flag, with slight modifications. This flag served as a “symbol of the mature Confederacy,” said Coski, and as the antithesis to the “Stars and Bars,” which had proved to be unpopular among Confederates.

Seventy-five years after the Civil War ended, the Confederate flag was still possessed and respected by veterans and their families as a symbol of the ancestral connection between the families and the Confederates who fought and died during the war.

The revival of the Confederate flag during the 1940’s can be attributed to two groups: college students and soldiers in the United States Army. Southern colleges incorporated the flag into their football games, while southern fraternities used the flag to symbolize their organizations. Southern men going into the army used it as a way to identify themselves among their northern colleagues. The flag had strayed from the traditional representation of heritage and had taken on what Coski called a “good ole boy” and “rebel” reputation.

It became clear during the 1950’s that the successors of the Confederate soldiers were not happy with how the flag was being used by others. They became increasingly disgruntled in 1949 when the flag was used by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). By today’s standards, the KKK has had one of the largest influences on the symbolism of the Confederate flag.

At the time, however, the KKK’s use of the flag might still have faded away and been ignored by the public if it was not for the Dixiecrat party. The Dixiecrat party was established in 1948 and was made up of college students opposing the civil rights movement. They chose the Confederate flag as their party’s symbol, and it remained so until the 1970’s. To those in the Dixiecrat party, the flag symbolized opposition against equal rights for African Americans. These political parties were influential in establishing much of the negative symbolism surrounding the flag.

Today, the flag continues to serve as a symbol of Confederate heritage and pride. To some, it symbolizes a desire of “state’s rights over federal regulation,” said Coski, and to others a racist ideology. There is still heated controversy over public displays of the flag, especially in public schools. Proponents of the flag argue that they have the right to display it on the grounds of free speech.

When asked what she thought of the Confederate flag, senior Kathy Michels stated, “The [revival of the] flag is a sign that the south is trying to relive their glory days,” and that they are “holding onto a glorified identity that never existed.”

Senior Luke Trout stated, “It cannot be argued that the flag was a symbol of racism for some people. However, that is and never was its primary meaning. Today, the flag remains a symbol of pride and rebellion, rebellion against the liberal progressive government destroying this nation.”

Coski seemed to take a neutral stance in this debate. He said that people who fly the flag must be aware that it does not represent “heritage” to everyone. He also said that some people have the right to be offended, but that they should not assume the motives of those waving it to be malicious.

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