In the recent verbal national battles over the propriety of “flying the Rebel Flag,” one message comes through loud and clear from most of its proponents—“I just fly the flag to share with the world my Pride in my Heritage!”
Yes, sharin’ “pride in heritage” is such a benign message to attach to such a harmless practice. As you can clearly see in the photos below. No need for any words—these folks were just raising their flags in the public arena to send a message to onlookers of just how proud they are of their heritage. Obviously the bystanders will get that message loud and clear.
But how about we let some of those folks express that message in actual words to add to and clarify the Act of Pride? That way anyone who carelessly misreads the unspoken message of the “Flag o’ Pride and Heritage” can understand the specifics of that heritage and why the wavers are so proud of it.
Oh, dear. How unfortunate that a tiny few Southern folks could have mis-appropriated that flag and misrepresented what it truly symbolizes. For surely the “average” Southerner long, long after the Civil War was over couldn’t have been so crude and heartless and condescending to a whole race of people.
In the spring of the next year, 1948, the Confederate battle flag flew along the streets of Jackson when Mississippi’s governor, Fielding Wright, himself carrying a flag, arrived to inaugurate the new States Rights Democratic Party. Speaking directly to the African-American community via the radio, Governor Wright warned that “If any of you have become so deluded as to want to enter our white schools, patronize our hotels, and cafes, enjoy social equality with the whites, then kindness and true sympathy requires me to advise you to make your home in some other state than Mississippi.” [Source]
Oh. I see. That wasn’t crude and heartless and condescending. That was an offer of “kindness and true sympathy.” (The sign above said, “Don’t you wish you were white?” Wright seemed to be adding, “So sorry you aren’t.”)
But surely Wright didn’t represent most Southerners. Maybe he was just an aberration.
That theory doesn’t work. Evidence starts with the saga of one-term governor (and many-many-many-term senator!) Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
James Strom Thurmond (December 5, 1902 – June 26, 2003) was an American politician who served for 48 years as a United States Senator from South Carolina. He ran for president in 1948 as the States Rights Democratic Party candidate, receiving 2.4% of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes. Thurmond represented South Carolina in the United States Senate from 1954 until 2003, at first as a Democrat and, after 1964, as a Republican. … Thurmond switched parties because of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, disaffection with the liberalism of the national party, and his support for the conservatism of the Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater. [Source]
About the same time Governor Wright was making his position on racial equality crystal clear, Governor Thurmond seconded the motion.
… With Truman winning the Democratic Party’s nomination [for the 1948 presidential election], Strom Thurmond fell in with the Dixiecrats. [Source]
“Dixiecrats” was the nickname of the States Rights Democratic Party mentioned above, a “third party” formed to resist the drift of the regular Democratic party toward support of integration and increased “civil rights” for minorities. President Truman had already just recently integrated the Army.
At the urging of both Fielding Wright and former Alabama governor, Frank Dixon, Thurmond announced his candidacy for President. He did so at an almost impromptu convention in Birmingham, Alabama. The whole place was decked out in Confederate flags and portraits of Confederate officers. …
When Thurmond spoke, he forever tied together the Confederate battle flag and racism:
“I wanna tell you that the progress of the Nigra race has not been due to these so-called emancipators, but to the kindness of the good southern people. … I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” The crowd erupted in cheering and Confederate flag waving.
Here they are at their Birmingham convention.
You can hear the stirring declaration from the lips of Thurmond himself at this link:
Yep. “Nigras” would be kept not just out of theaters and swimming pools and churches…but even out of white “homes.” Well, not exactly out of all the parts of the home. Thurmond made special dispensation for… bedrooms. For, you see, there is a footnote to Thurmond’s impassioned speech.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams lived for 87 years. But, in her own words, she was never “completely free” until she could stand before the world and say out loud that Strom Thurmond, the one-time segregationist South Carolina senator, was her father. That was in 2003, after she had spent more than 70 years being denied what we all deserve – her true name and birthright. “In a way, my life began at 78, at least my life as who I really was,” Washington-Williams wrote in her life story. She has died.
Thurmond’s oldest child — born when he was a 22-year-old man…
…and her mother, Carrie Butler, a 16-year-old black maid in his father’s house – had kept the senator’s secret, an open one rumored about but never revealed when he was alive because, she had said, “He trusted me, and I respected him.”
Here’s a vivacious young Essie Mae.
As in the case of Thomas Jefferson, another successful southern politician who was father to black children, stories shared among African Americans were long disbelieved until they turned out to be true.
…She kept her public silence when, in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, her father conducted a nonstop filibuster that lasted more than 24 hours, and when he continued to oppose every piece of civil rights legislation that came before him. Washington-Williams said she never wanted to harm the man she must have loved, even as he made his name and reputation hurting his own flesh-and-blood and everyone like her.
Including his own grandchildren. And, eventually, great grandchildren.
…“He never called my mother by her name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child,” Washington-Williams wrote in “Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond.” He gave her money, yes, a defense I heard when the story became public.
…In 2003 [when Thurmond died], she could finally stop holding her breath and tell her truth. The Thurmond family didn’t dispute her, and her name was added to the list of children on a monument for the senator on the grounds of the South Carolina state house, joining the Confederate flag, a monument to the contributions of African Americans, and statues honoring segregationists who did their worst but could not stop Washington-Williams from achieving. The excerpt above was from an article about her death in 2013. A decade earlier, when Thurmond died, an article in
The Economist provided a few more details of the saga, related to Essie’s Memoir.
The Economist 12/18/2003 Ms Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old former school teacher who lives in Los Angeles, had until now [2003…after his death that year] denied the relationship, insisting that she and the senator were merely “close friends”.
They had agreed to put it like this decades ago, she says, to save him embarrassment and protect his political career. If she stayed quiet—as she did—her father would help her with money. [For instance, he paid her way to college…an “historically all-black college,” of course.]
Essie was born in 1925, and promptly sent away to live with an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania, to avoid scandal. She believed they were her parents, until, at 13, Carrie Butler came visiting and confessed to Essie that she was her mother. But she still didn’t know who her father was.
Three years later she traveled south for a family funeral. Details about the trip were in her 2005 book, as summarized in a historynet.com article 2/1/2016:
It was her first trip to South Carolina, her first exposure to segregated trains and “whites only” drinking fountains.
Carrie woke Essie Mae early on the morning after the funeral. “Get up and get dressed,” she said. “I’m taking you to meet your father.”
…When they arrived at a building with a sign reading, “Thurmond and Thurmond, Attorneys at Law,” Essie Mae figured her father must be a chauffeur for a big-shot white lawyer. When a black servant opened the door, she thought he was her father. But he merely led them to an empty office, where they waited in silence.
And then in walked Judge Strom Thurmond. Age 38…unmarried and still having an affair with “Nigra” Carrie Butler. He spent an hour with the pair, complimented Essie as being lovely, gave her lots of little petty advice regarding diet and education and such…and then shook hands firmly with them and ushered them out.
Carrie had introduced him by saying, “Essie Mae, meet your father.” And he had mentioned that Essie had his sister’s cheekbones. But other than that, there was nothing in the conversation that directly addressed the awkward reality.
On their walk back to the black side of town, Carrie told her daughter about her ongoing affair with Thurmond.
“Does he love you?” Essie Mae asked.
“I hope so,” Carrie said. “I think so.”
“Do you love him?”
“Does he have a wife?”
“What can we do?”
“Nothing,” Carrie responded. “This is South Carolina.”
Yes, it was indeed South Carolina. Where no white was EVER, as Strom Thurmond later put it, going to have to “admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes (except occasionally into bedrooms…), and into our churches.” And where the Confederate Battle Flag had just recently made its earliest appearance as a public symbol employed by staunch segregationists.
The first major post-war use of the Confederate battle flag as something other than a memorial was by the government of South Carolina. In 1938, John D. Long, a representative from Union County, proposed that the battle flag [not even one of the official national flags of the Confederacy, mind you] join the flags of the United States and South Carolina which were displayed in the chamber of the House immediately behind the speaker’s desk. No mention was made of states rights or of segregation, but some believed the timing odd. The House had just endured a long debate on lynching, and there was some contention with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
The fact that it was proposed by John D. Long also raised some questions. Long was the son of Union County’s original KKK leader. The apple not falling far from the tree, Long himself was a die-hard segregationist. Though the Civil Rights Movement had not quite gotten off the ground, the first rumblings were beginning to appear across the nation. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt openly spoke up for the rights of African-Americans. [ibid]
But there was still no Battle Flag waving above the state house. That didn’t come until April 1961, with the arrival of the Civil War Centennial. Which just happened to be smack in the middle of the build up of the Civil Rights movement. Battles over school integration in Southern states were raging. Just a few months earlier, in fall 1960, federal marshals had to protect little six year old Ruby Bridges from rabid segregationist protestors as she became the first child to integrate a school in New Orleans.
White New Orleans protesters liberally included displaying and waving Rebel Flags in their mass demonstrations to protest little Ruby.
And the habit, which started early on after the 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling supposedly outlawing segregation, continued up until the late 1960s at demonstrations all over the south. And do notice that all the ranting and screaming and flag-waving shown in the news photos of the era seldom feature men in white robes and pointed hoods. They often feature housewives and grandmothers and grade school, high school, and college students.
Or even, on occasion, the local constabulary.
Although this isn’t to deny that sometimes the Flag Wielders did wear goofy outfits.
Like the rest of the protesters, they also trained their children early to publicly express their “pride in their heritage,” as seen in these three photos from the 60s.
(Sigh…I almost expected to be able to google and find a photo of an ultrasound pic with a robe-n-hood photoshopped on the little fetus.)
The heritage lessons had been going on for a long time. This photo is from Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1948.
And it went back long before that. Here’s one from Oklahoma in 1924.
And lest you think the heritage lessons ended back in the 60s…here’s a photo of a young white Klucker and a black State Trooper from 1992.
But I digress. Back to the 60s…
Anti-school-integration protesters all over the South made sure to liberally share their pride in their heritage, often with their favorite Symbol of Pride, every time they ranted against the suggestion that white kids should be required to sit next to African American kids in school rooms.
As the Grand Kleagle at the KKK rally in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? shouted about race-mixing, “That’s not a part of MY culture and heritage!”
So…back to the South Carolina state house and the 1961 Civil War Centennial. And the introduction of the Rebel Flag (the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia, actually) above the governmental seat of the state.
Rather than just guess at what might have gone on, I found an article on the Web from 1999 that featured an interview with one of the organizers on the planning commission for that South Carolina observance.
Daniel Hollis was the grandson of a South Carolina Confederate Soldier. He shares some interesting information, and some useful insights.
Hollis’ love for history manifested in a Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University and 36 years of teaching at the University of South Carolina’s history department. His specialty was Southern history and the Civil War.
In 1959, Gov. Fritz Hollings appointed Hollis to serve on a commission to plan the state’s observance of the 100th anniversary of the War Between the States. President Dwight Eisenhower had commissioned a national Civil War Centennial, and the state centennial commissions were to coordinate activities.
“I’m the only one on the commission left alive,” Hollis said in an August  interview. “I tried to get them to call it the `Civil War Centennial,’ but they insisted on calling it the `Confederate War Centennial.’
I was the only Civil War historian. There were three UDC [United Daughters of the Confederacy] girls on it [I assume he meant grown women, not children…], and John May was chairman. May was a state representative from Aiken. He called himself `Mr. Confederacy’ and wore a Confederate uniform to our meetings. I called May an inveterate Confederate.
“They would argue that the war wasn’t fought over slavery but states’ rights. That’s ridiculous. Without the slavery issue South Carolina would not have seceded. You think they would have gotten angry enough about tariffs to start shooting?
“The ruling elite that ran this state all owned slaves. They denied the war was over slavery, insisting that it was over states’ rights. But it was over the states’ right to own slaves and enforce white supremacy,” Hollis said.
In fact, the 169 men who formed the South Carolina Secession Convention all supported slavery and acknowledged in their “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” that slavery was the central issue.
James Pettigrew, a former legislator from Charleston, was one of the few political leaders to criticize the state’s intentions of leaving the Union. “South Carolina is too large to be a lunatic asylum and too small to be a republic,” he said of the plans to secede.
…Hollis remembers the day the Confederate flag was hoisted over the State House to commemorate the war. The centennial kicked off on April 11, 1961, with a re-creation of the firing on Fort Sumter. The flag went up for the opening celebrations.
“The flag is being flown this week at the request of Aiken Rep. John A. May,” reported The State on April 12. May didn’t introduce his resolution until the next legislative session. By the time the resolution passed on March 16, 1962, the flag had been flying for nearly a year. (This explains why the flag is often erroneously reported to have gone up in 1962).
“May told us he was going to introduce a resolution to fly the flag for a year from the capitol. I was against the flag going up,” Hollis said, “but I kept quiet and went along. I didn’t want to get into it with the UDC girls.” The resolution that passed didn’t include a time for the flag to come down and, therefore, “it just stayed up,” Hollis said. “Nobody raised a question.”
At the opening ceremonies of the Centennial…
…Thurmond warned the crowd that integration was a Communist plot designed to weaken America. “It has been revealed time and time again that advocacy by Communists of social equality among diverse races… is the surest method for the destruction of free governments.
“I am proud of the job that South Carolina is doing [in regard to segregation],” Thurmond said, “and I urge that we continue in this great tradition no matter how much outside agitation may be brought to bear on our people and our state.”
In 1861, the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia was categorically a symbol of the absolute conviction by the Confederate States that it was worth it to go to war to protect…not some states’ rights to protest taxes or tariffs…but to protect what they declared was the foundation and cornerstone of their cause. Their reason for seceding. The Cardinal Truth that the Negro Race was intended by God to be enslaved by the white race. And the enslavement of the Negro Race was absolutely necessary for the economic system of the South to succeed.
Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President, nailed this down in a speech he delivered in Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861, almost exactly 100 years before the Rebel Flag went up over the South Carolina State House in 1961. That speech, dubbed the “Cornerstone Speech,” included these unmistakable words.
“The new Constitution [of the Confederacy] has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
…Our new Government is founded upon … its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.
Equally unmistakable was this wording in the “Declaration of Secession” of Mississippi earlier that year, January 9, 1861:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. [In particular, cotton.] These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.
THAT is the “culture and heritage” that is represented, is symbolized by, the “Rebel Flag.” A culture that insisted that the Negro was fundamentally totally inferior to the white man, and can and should be subjected in slavery to the white man, because the economy of…not just the South, but the whole world…depended on it!
When the South lost the Civil War, they could no longer enforce that belief on the Negro by the institution of slavery. But they could enforce the belief of the total inferiority of the Negro through the method of Jim Crow laws and customs. (And the techniques of terror and intimidation such as lynching.) And thereby…maintain their dignity as the Superior Race.
The folks in the 1960s knew very clearly what they were declaring when they waved that flag in the faces of “Nigras” who were marching for integration and equal rights. (Or in the face of six year old little girls who just wanted to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.) They were saying unequivocally “What YOU want is not part of OUR culture and heritage.”
George Wallace understood very clearly what message he was conveying by the use of the Rebel Flag as a backdrop for his speeches and publicity photos in the early 1960s.
He verbalized that message in no uncertain terms in his election speeches, and in his eventual inauguration speech as Governor: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Most state politicians in other parts of the country would have chosen to stand in front of their state’s flag for promotional purposes. But Wallace never chose to stand in front of Alabama’s State Flag, which has a simple red X on a white background.
No, he opted totally for the symbolism imparted by the Rebel Flag. An unmistakable, universally-understood symbolism among segregationist Southerners.
African Americans of the present are not concerned about historical display of a battle flag in a museum, a grave yard, or even inside someone’s home in a display over Great Grandpa’s photo. They aren’t remembering what the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia represented 150 years ago. They remember and find extremely emotionally painful—and very reasonably so—what it has undeniably represented and symbolized, as shown in all those photos above and thousands upon thousands more on the Web, in their own lifetimes and the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents. In public places, as an instrument of intimidation.
It has commonly and widely represented, for well over fifty years now, White Supremacy. Racism. Race hatred. Segregation. Jim Crow laws and customs. Persecution. Danger, injury, and all too often death…just for asking for the equality declared in the Declaration of Independence. And for the “liberty and justice for all” declared in the Pledge of Allegiance.
This is a photo of an “effigy” of a “lynched” black man, hanging under a proudly waving Rebel Flag.
How can anyone doubt the meaning and the terrorizing power of the symbolism of the flag in this context? That is an effigy of 29 year old James Meredith.
His crime, deserving lynching? In 1961, after graduating high school, serving nine years in the US Air Force, and attending “historically black” Jackson State University for two years, he wanted to complete his college degree at the state-funded University of Mississippi. Period. But since the U of M was segregated at the time, the “Southern cultural heritage” needed to be protected from the likes of him, and thus the intimidating display with the effigy—accompanied by the Flag o’ Pride in Southern Heritage. An unmistakable message.
Although Meredith did meet a lot of symbolic resistance such as this, he did manage to eventually get admitted to the school and finish his degree. But the Heritage remained strong in its resolve to intimidate him, and in 1966, while on a civil rights march in support of voter registration, he received multiple wounds when shot by sniper.
He did survive, and actually, this incident gained more positive publicity for the Civil Rights movement, and support from sympathetic whites, than that sniper ever imagined.
It is far too late in history for anyone to honestly try to somehow “repurpose” the Rebel Flag to symbolize some other kind of heritage than what it has symbolized throughout its long history…the heritage of belief in the basic inequality of the races, and the conviction that the “Nigra” was doomed by God from the very beginning of history to be subordinate to the white man.
I would suggest that white Southerners find some more praiseworthy and honorable things—or at least just neutral Southern things like Southern Fried Chicken and skillet corn bread—to be proud about, and some other symbols to use to express that pride.
The comments by Dr. Daniel Hollis shared earlier in this material were from an article in 1999, long before the latest brouhaha about the Rebel Flag. (Although there were already rumblings at that time about the need to abandon it as a legitimate symbol of just pride in some sort of benign Southern heritage.) Although I now live in the Deep South myself, in Savannah, Georgia, I’ll admit I’m a transplanted Northerner. So I’ll let Dr. Hollis, as a life-long Southerner and descendant of a Civil War soldier, have the final word.
It has only been 38 years since the flag went up, but its defenders seem to have lost their short-term memory. Dr. Hollis calls them “historical revisionists.”
He said there should be no denying that white supremacy was a vital aspect of this state’s political will in 1861, just as it was in 1961. And there can be no separating the banners from this history.
When asked to comment on the current [back in 1999] controversy over the flag, Hollis quoted George Santayana, who said,
“Loyalty to our ancestors does not include
loyalty to their mistakes.”