All the talk today is about how the Confederate flag represents racism, but to many Southerners, it represented a refusal to recognize defeat in the Civil War, like the old saying, “Save your Confederate money boys, the South will rise again.” The South was physically destroyed, plundered and exhausted by the war, perhaps epitomized by Sherman’s march to the sea. On top of this devastation was added the harsh terms of Reconstruction, under which the victors continued to oppress the defeated South. Southerners needed ways to retain their pride under Northern oppression, and one way was to cling to symbols of the proud society they had had before the war, like the flag, like honoring those who fought in the war. It was a way of maintaining their identity in the face of Northern pressure to eliminate it.
This tradition of Southern pride in its identity lasted for a hundred years, but now, 150 years later, that tradition is dying out. The country and the South are changing. South Carolina’s governor is no longer a good, old, white boy, but an Indian-American woman. Good, old, white boys are becoming a minority in their own land. The newcomers, including Latinos and the newly politically powerful black Southerners, have no interest in maintaining that old Southern identity. They find it offensive.
The current obsession with slavery in the South overlooks the fact that blacks and whites lived in relative harmony for hundreds of years in the South. Even in times of slavery and segregation, there were blacks and whites who were friends despite the racial barriers and inequalities of the day. Race relations today are on a more equal footing, but by no means perfect, as the unrest in Baltimore and St. Louis, and the huge number of black men in prison illustrate. The Confederate flag was not the problem in St. Louis or Baltimore, nor is it in many of the cities with disproportionate numbers of black men in prison, like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York.
This may be the last generation to try to maintain the Southern legacy of the Civil War. I grew up with my grandfather telling me stories about his father, who commanded Fort Powell at the entrance to Mobile Bay during the Battle of Mobile Bay. He said that his father was leading on his arm against a wall of sandbags, when a cannonball went under his arm and into the wall of sandbags. It did not explode but forever after he had sand embedded in his arm and side from the force of the cannonball hitting the sand. He also fought at the Battle of Shiloh with his good friend George Dixon who went on to be the driving force behind the construction of the Confederate submarine the Hunley.
I don’t think it is essential that the Confederate flag fly over the South Carolina capitol or have any other official government role, but it should not be banned from all public display as some sort of evil emblem. It is not only about race, although race may always be associated with it by those who want to make the association. An attempt to ban it today is just as much about racism as it was about racism in the 1860s. People cheer for their hometown sports teams, for family members playing sports. The love of the old South and the flag is sort of like the hopeless love of the Chicago Cubs, perpetual losers, but fan favorites. The flag is to some extent a symbol of the fact that even if you lost, you can take pride in your effort. You may have been defeated, but your spirit is not broken.