At high noon on Saturday July 1, 2000, the three flags over the capitol dome at the state house in Columbia, South Carolina, were lowered. The top two flags, representing the federal government of the United States and the state of South Carolina, went back up. The third flag dropped inside the dome and was presented to Governor Jim Hodges by two cadets from the Citadel — one black, one white. The crowd gathered on the capitol grounds grew silent as Confederate reenactors, dressed in gray and butternut, marched toward a Confederate soldiers' monument to the steady beat of two snare drums. They carried with them a small square flag like the ones actually borne by Confederate soldiers across the battlefields of a war that had not yet been forgotten. Protected by 300 law enforcement officers, including sharpshooters positioned on the state house roof and thirty state troopers standing shoulder to shoulder in a grassy area near the soldiers' monument, the reenactors attached the square flag to a lanyard and raised it on a 30-foot bronze pole. The assembled crowd erupted in “a cacophony of Rebel whoops” (Greenville News, July 2, 2000).
This brief ceremony marked the formal end of a controversy that had divided the state of South Carolina for more than a decade. It had prompted an economic boycott of the state by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and had been the focus of intense media coverage — most of it negative. Also, because of the importance of South Carolina's early Republican Primary, the controversy has been an issue in the last two presidential campaigns. The question that tore South Carolina apart like nothing since the War Between the States itself was the presence of a Confederate battleflag on the capitol dome. This was the offending symbol that Governor Hodges had received from the two Citadel cadets. Its removal from the dome to the state house grounds enabled politicians to turn their attention to other matters, even as Southern traditionalists felt betrayed and the NAACP remained unsatisfied. Like most political compromises, this one was based more on expediency than principle.
The Confederate battle flag was originally raised over capitol the dome in Columbia as part of the centennial celebration of the War Between the States in 1961. The following year the state legislature passed a joint resolution that the flag should fly in perpetuity. Although not everyone was happy with the situation, no formal effort was made to remove the flag for the next ten years. Between 1972 and 1992, various legislators unsuccessfully introduced resolutions that would have brought the flag down. By the early nineties, both the flag and the opposition to it seemed to be a permanent part of the political landscape of South Carolina. Despite their persistent efforts, the organized pressure groups on the left were unable to eliminate this defiant reminder of the state's Confederate past. That would be a job for the Republican Right.
As every student of American political history knows, the South was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party from the end of Reconstruction until the late 1940s. The break in this particular union began in 1948, when the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, successfully urged the Democratic National Convention to favor strong federal intervention in race relations in the South. In the presidential election in November, several Southern states bolted from the national party to vote for the third party candidacy of South Carolina's governor, Strom Thurmond. A generation later, in 1964, Thurmond gave up a decade of seniority in the U. S. Senate and membership in the majority party to become a Republican. By the end of the decade, Thurmond's aide Harry Dent was helping Richard Nixon devise a strategy to capture the entire South for the Republicans.
In many respects, David Beasley was the prototype of the new Southern Republican. He had started his adult life as a beer-drinking playboy. (Rumor has it that young David's father actually paid him a salary to stay away from the family business.) Scarcely out of college, Beasley was elected to the state legislature as a Democrat and eventually became majority leader. Along the way, he found Jesus — the first of many conversions. Sensing the changing political tide, Beasley discovered both the Republican Party and the Religious Right. Three years later, he ran for governor. It was 1994, the year of the “Gingrich Revolution.” Everyone was looking for change, and no politician in South Carolina had changed oftener than David Beasley.
Having failed to win a majority of the total vote in the initial primary, Beasley was forced into a run-off with a veteran Republican congressman named Arthur Ravenel. Because of his thick Charleston accent and his eclectic voting record (although conservative on most issues, he was a strong environmentalist and moderately pro-choice on abortion), Ravenel was suspect in the minds of upstate Republicans, who prefer their politicians to be both bland and predictable. Nevertheless, Ravenel had the advantage of appearing staunchly neo-Confederate, and 74% of Republican voters had favored keeping the flag on the dome in a non-binding referendum taken during the first primary. If Beasley had any personal reservations about the Confederate flag, he was not about to bring his career to a premature end by voicing them in the run-off. Pledging fidelity to the status quo, he kept the flag from being an issue and went on to beat Ravenel in the run-off.
After narrowly defeating his Democratic opponent, Nick Theodore, in the general election, David Beasley was a rising star in the political firmament. If he followed the pattern set by his two immediate predecessors (one Democrat, one Republican), he could expect to be reelected against token opposition in 1998. By 2000, Bill Clinton would be out of the White House, and the Republicans might well be looking for their own young Southern governor to put on the national ticket. It wasn't long before Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, began hinting that the Religious Right would look favorably on a Beasley candidacy. To assure reelection in 1998, all Beasley had to do was avoid a major political misstep. To earn a place in the national spotlight, however, he needed some dramatic accomplishment — preferably one that played against anti-Southern stereotypes. (Remember how much mileage Jimmy Carter got out of hanging Martin Luther King's portrait in the capitol in Atlanta twenty-five years earlier.) Shortly after Bill Clinton trounced Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election, it occurred to Beasley that getting rid of that pesky banner on the capitol dome might be his ticket to national office, maybe even the cultural equivalent of Nixon going to China. All that he had to do was find a plausible way of reneging on his campaign promise.
Eventually all successful politicians have to develop the ability to go back on what they pledged to do when running for office. Most simply argue that circumstances have changed. (Few have the candor of Earl Long, who once explained the difference between his word and deed by saying, “I lied.”) Obviously, the “changed circumstances” line wouldn't work with the Confederate flag. The only thing that had changed since 1994 was that a nearly bankrupt NAACP had latched onto the flag issue as a way of replenishing its coffers. So, Parson Beasley took the only avenue open to him. He declared that God had told him to take the flag down. This revelation was announced in a statewide television speech, in which he invoked the names of all his Confederate ancestors. (One is reminded of the Borscht Belt comedian who tells a string of anti-Semitic jokes and then declares: “It's all right — I'm Jewish.”) The only people who could possibly fail to be stirred were a few benighted rednecks, and there was no way they would vote for the party of Jesse Jackson in a presidential election.
Officeholders in South Carolina were a bit more parochial in their assessment of the situation. Unfortunately for them, a disproportionate number of the flag-loving rednecks were registered to vote in South Carolina. Immediately after Beasley spoke, two other public officials (Attorney General Charlie Condon and State Senator Glenn McConnell) appeared to rebut his position. So united was the media in their opposition to the flag that South Carolina's public television network initially refused to air any rebuttal. (Exemplifying what Tom Wolfe once called “mau-mauing the flak catchers,” the nominally Republican state Superintendent of Education, Barbara Nielson, claimed that providing equal time would be a “threat to public safety.”) Even after the network was forced to air the rebuttals, most affiliate stations simply refused to carry them. In Greenville, where all three speeches were heard, a station conducted a call-in poll to gauge public sentiment. The pro-flag position “won hands down.”
Because the anti-flag Democrats could not easily capitalize on Beasley's dilemma, no major Democrat challenged him for reelection. There was only the perennial collection of crank candidates and state representative Jim Hodges, an unprepossessing backbencher, whose speaking voice made him sound like Gomer Pyle. Although Hodges might not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, he knew enough to blame the condition of South Carolina's public schools on Beasley. Because the people of the state wanted to improve their children's SAT scores (to, say, forty-ninth in the nation) while continuing to roll back the property taxes that paid for the schools, Hodges proposed a state lottery to fund education. In terms of public policy, this “voluntary tax” offered something for nothing even to those who didn't play the numbers. Besides, neighboring Georgia had a lottery, and South Carolinians within driving distance of the border were already helping to fund schools in the Peachtree State. If David Beasley had seemed on the verge of national prominence in 1996, his own reelection as governor was questionable a mere two years later.
On election night, Jim Hodges coasted to a comfortable upset victory, and David Beasley was retired to that purgatory of ex-politicians — a teaching position at the Kennedy School of Government. Exit polls showed that the solidly Republican Party wasn't so solid after all. Twenty-two percent of those who voted for Hodges were Republicans primarily interested in expressing their dissatisfaction with Beasley. Although estimates differ, flag supporters constituted a significant percentage of the defectors. Even though Beasley had backtracked on his proposal to move the flag (he did not reveal whether he had made a second pilgrimage to Mount Sinai), voters who felt betrayed were out to punish him. Hodges might not be entirely trustworthy, but he would surely get the message that messing with the flag after promising not to was political suicide. What flag supporters had not reckoned with was the power of the cultural elites.
During Reconstruction, some native born Southerners betrayed their homeland for Yankee money. Scalawags have been more often motivated by the equally valuable coin of cultural respectability. Anti-Southern prejudice (even more than anti-Catholicism) is the last acceptable bigotry in America. To reveal even a tepid or qualified fondness for the antebellum South is to risk seeming like ignorant white trash. From the end of Reconstruction until the post-World War II civil rights movement, the white South had been depicted with an evenhanded deference in American popular culture. If Hollywood dealt in stereotypes about the South, they were apt to be positive ones. The abiding popularity of Gone With the Wind as both novel and movie has meant that, in the popular imagination, the cause of the South is indeed the cause of us all. As University of South Carolina history professor Clyde Wilson has observed, this was part of a cultural bargain the South had struck with the North at the end of Reconstruction. If the South would rejoin the Union and support it in its future wars, the history and symbols of the region would be respected.
The civil rights revolution, which some have called the Second Reconstruction, changed all of this. One can applaud the end of Jim Crow, even as one applauds the end of slavery, and still recognize that some of the tactics involved had negative consequences. In addition to expanding the power of the federal government, the crusade for civil rights depicted the South as a uniquely violent and racist region of the country. Although there were plenty of individual Southerners who confirmed this stereotype, we have since been reminded that injustice exists everywhere in this nation. (Rodney King and Abner Louima were not brutalized by Alabama state troopers, after all.) Unfortunately (with a few honorable exceptions), our popular culture is still fixated on a cartoon image of the South straight out of the 1960s. What is even more regrettable is the fact that a lot of people who should know better (academics, preachers, and businessmen among them) have bought into this simplistic morality play.
Of course, movie-made reality does not hold that all white southerners are atavistic bigots. There are a few heroic liberals who are willing to stand against the majority of their own people to plead for simple justice and decency. The Platonic ideal of such a figure can be found in Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 1990s, Hollywood was still reprising this theme when director Rob Reiner found a real life Atticus Finch in Bobby DeLaughter, the Mississippi prosecutor who convicted Byron de la Beckwith in the thirty-year-old murder of Medger Evers. Judging from Reiner's movie Ghosts of Mississippi, one would conclude that nothing in the Deep South had changed since the 1960s. The more general message was that, if you are a white Southerner, the surest way to gain approval from the rest of the nation is to try to be a defiant liberal. If you can't find and innocent black man to defend or a lynch mob to face down or even a lunch counter to desegregate, you can at least trash the Confederate flag.
In a war of attrition, it is possible to lose almost every battle and yet emerge victorious. Like the Viet Cong, hardened opponents of the flag realized that, if they stayed around long enough and made enough noise, the softer members of the enemy camp would eventually get tired and sue for peace. Hardly a day went by when South Carolina's two most influential newspapers (the Columbia State and the Greenville News, both owned by out-of-state interests) didn't carry a news story or an editorial bashing the flag. Pretty soon, city councils and other representative bodies started calling for the removal of the flag, usually without consulting the constituencies they purported to represent. David Beasley had even gotten a host of elected officials, including all living South Carolina governors, to hop on the anti-flag bandwagon.
As usual, the business community led the way in caving in to the forces of political correctness. Corporate leaders are always susceptible to organized pressure. Because it is cheaper to pay the mau-maus off than it is to stand on principle, business tycoons are easy prey to shake-down artists such as Jesse Jackson. For those interested only in the bottom line, it is easier to promote racial preferences and run “diversity” workshops than it is to litigate cases on the basis of individual merit.
For South Carolina's rope salesmen, the flag issue was nothing more than a matter of public relations. Charles Hamel, publisher of Southern Partisan put it best when he wrote: “Like America's greatest entrepreneur, Henry Ford, most of the Palmetto State's CEOs believe that u2018history is bunk.' Their chief goal in life is to entice Yankees and foreigners to come to South Carolina — either as builders of plants and factories or as tourists.” Perhaps the most ludicrous argument of all was that the state must furl the flag if it wanted to attract German car manufacturers. Bavarian Motor Works had already located near Greenville despite the presence of the Confederate flag in Columbia. Besides, given that little unpleasantness known as the Holocaust, it seemed a bit presumptuous for Germans to be lecturing other people about race relations.
With the business community in the vanguard, other elements in society soon added their voices to the campaign against the flag. Even though this banner (along with that of Quebec) is one of only two flags in the Western Hemisphere to bear a Christian symbol, the mainline churches closed ranks against this alleged symbol of racial oppression. Also, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley led an anti-flag march from his city to Columbia. (As Hamel and others have pointed out, this was the height of hypocrisy, given the degree to which Charleston's tourist trade benefits from remnants of Confederate history.) Riley's pilgrimage was one of those jaunts that people joined for a mile or two in order to get their pictures in the paper. Among such marchers were two relative newcomers to the state — Lou Holtz and Tommy Bowden, the head football coaches at the University of South Carolina and Clemson. It was bad enough if Germans didn't want to build cars in South Carolina, but it would have been an even greater tragedy if either of the state's top two colleges lost a brilliant history major who also happened to play football.
In spite of these accumulated pressures, the flag would probably still be flying today had the controversy been confined to South Carolina. As it turns out, the efforts of the NAACP to nationalize the issue got an unlikely boost form the Party of Lincoln. Even more than in previous years, it appeared that in 2000 the South Carolina primary would decide the Republican presidential nomination. Among other things, that meant that parochial issues began to get intense coverage from the national press. (For a time, one would have thought that a small fundamentalist college in Greenville represented a threat to the 2000-year-old Roman Catholic Church.) It came as no surprise that candidates were grilled about their views on the Confederate flag. John McCain said contradictory things, depending on which audience he was addressing, while George W. Bush, who had done much to suppress Confederate heritage in his home state of Texas, consistently maintained that placement of the Confederate flag was a matter for South Carolinians to decide. National politicians who were not seeking votes in the Palmetto state proved far less reticent to state a position.
If the Republicans had pursued a Southern strategy in the late sixties and early seventies, they now seem to have hit upon an anti-Southern strategy. Part of the reason for this was noting more than a desire to “reach out” to blacks and white moderates who bought into the demonology purveyed by the NAACP. Virginia's governor, Jim Gilmore (who proudly calls himself the state's CEO) has aggressively attacked Confederate symbols in his state. Not surprisingly, he is now national Republican Party Chairman. The liberal Republican Governor of New York, George Pataki, removed the Georgia State flag from a display in the state capitol in Albany because it contained the Confederate battle flag as part of its design. (Georgians have since bowed to the zeitgeist and changed the pattern of their flag to something more politically correct.) Finally, after the voters relieved him of the burden of his presidential candidacy, John McCain pulled and Earl Long — he admitted that he had lied for political advantage when he failed to chastise South Carolinians for flying the Cross of St. Andrew. Although no one in the South had told George Pataki what flag to fly in New York or expressed an opinion about the appearance of the capitol dome in McCain's home state of Arizona, politicians from there (and seemingly everywhere else) knew exactly what ought to be done in South Carolina.
In terms of unsolicited advice, the most helpful outsiders were pundits and intellectuals representing the national conservative establishment. These folks used to be called neoconservatives before they became so powerful that the prefix seemed kind of pointless. They started out as liberals in the fifties or (if they were real old) as Trotskyites in the thirties and forties. They turned to the right only after they got a good look at the counterculture and the New Left in the late sixties. Because many neoconservatives had been active in the early civil rights movement, they instinctively identified Southern traditionalists as the enemy. As long as they defined their opposition to racial preferences in terns of the colorblind equality advocated by Martin Luther King, they could reject the latter-day Left without having to embrace the Old South. Even if one leaves the thorny issue of race aside, neoconservatives didn't really believe in the principle of state's rights and limited government. A strong federal establishment was fine with them as long as they were running it.
The neoconservative best know to the general public was William Bennett, and so it is no surprise that he started going on talk shows accusing George W. Bush of moral cowardice for not denouncing the Confederate flag. (For neoconservatives, “moral cowardice” is a code word for being reluctant to stick your nose into other people's business.) Bennett's words carried a certain authority because he had gotten rich affixing his name to books about virtue that were actually written by an anonymous staffer. (Bennett, of course, is a great admirer of that other highly moral plagiarist “Dr.” King.) If Bill Bennett did not invent the anti-Southern strategy, it had first been used on his behalf.
In early 1981, word spread around Washington that President Reagan was likely to name the Southern traditionalist M. E. Bradford to be director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. At that point, a cabal of neoconservatives mounted a smear campaign that would have embarrassed Joe McCarthy. Not only had Bradford criticized Abraham Lincoln (an offense equivalent to spraypainting Mount Rushmore), he had also supported George Wallace in 1968 and '72. If these offenses weren't damning enough, the neocons circulated statements made by Bradford, which were ripped out of context, and misattributed to him the inflammatory words of others. When the smoke had cleared, the decent and kindly Bradford had been made to look like an academic David Duke, and the neoconservatives' candidate, William Bennett, became head of NEH. That Bennett was a registered Democrat with few if any scholarly publications meant less than the fact that he was politically well connected. In terms of cultural influence, Southern traditionalists had been read out of the national conservative movement.
It should have come as no surprise that Bill Bennett's position on the Confederate flag would be less an anomaly than a trendsetter among designer conservatives. Bill Buckley's National Review, which had been the house organ of the conservative establishment since 1955, treated the flag as a joke. Early in its history, NR had published Southern traditionalists such as Donald Davidson and Richard Weaver, and that unreconstructed copperhead Russell Kirk was one of the magazine's founding editors. Moreover, for twenty-five years, Mel Bradford had been a frequent and valued contributor. This openness to Southern views changed dramatically in the 1990s, when the end of the Cold War accentuated the differences between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. From that point on, any reference to the Confederacy in NR read as if it could have been scripted by Kweisi Mfume. The magazine's new editor, Rich Lowry (who wasn't even born until seven years after the flag had been raised in Columbia) dismissed Southern traditionalists as “rednecks.” In the only article in the magazine devoted to the flag issue, David Shifflett concluded that “there is no grace and decorum in South Carolina's use of the flag, and there is no substitute for those.” Shifflett neglected to mention whether he found grace and decorum in the linkage that flag bashers frequently made between the Confederacy and Nazi Germany.
Back in the halcyon days of Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley, one could always tune in “Crossfire” on CNN for a lively intellectual debate. Unfortunately, Buchanan and Kinsley had moved on to other endeavors, and their replacements were little more than partisan spinmeisters. When “Crossfire” tackled the issue of the flag, the “conservative” voice (Bush family toady Mary Matalin) simply dredged up all of the pro-Confederate proclamations Bill Clinton had singed as Governor of Arkansas. Republicans in the South might be bad, she seemed to say, but the Democrats were even worse.
The Fox News Channel, often seen as a conservative alternative to CNN, proved no better. Sean Hannity, the conservative half of the team of “Hannity and Colmes,” pointed out that, bad as the flag might be, it had first been raised during the gubernatorial administration of Democrat Fritz Hollings. It seemed that the only national commentator who took even a neutral stance on the flag was ABC's Cokie Roberts. The daughter of veteran Louisiana Democrats Hale and Lindy Boggs, Roberts pointed out to the dimwitted Sam Donaldson and the ever-pompous George Will that not all flag supporters were reactionary troglodytes and that any resolution of the issue must take their sensibilities into account. As rational as Ms. Cokie's remarks might have been, the overwhelming message that South Carolinians were getting from opinionmakers around the state and across the nation was that waving the Confederate flag in the New South was about as uncouth as practicing polygamy in the New Utah.
The war of attrition finally took its toll. The people of South Carolina did not turn away from the flag so much as they did from the controversy that was drowning out all other issues. Like the harried CEO who asks his lawyer “what will it take to make this go away?,” many South Carolinians were hopeful that some Solomonic compromise would enable them to go on with their lives. When the legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol dome and hoist a similar, more historically accurate, flag at the Confederate soldier's monument on the state house grounds, legislators who had vowed “never to take it down” were forced to eat their words.
In the end, only seven members of the state senate voted against the compromise. (Neither Glenn McConnell nor Arthur Ravenal, who had returned to the legislature after his failed run for governor, were among the “magnificent seven.”) Although they had not gotten the unconditional surrender they sought and vowed to continue their economic boycott of the state, the leaders of the NAACP were clear winners in this confrontation. Throughout the nation (South Carolina included), students were being expelled from school if they displayed the flag on their clothing or belongings. Workers were losing their jobs for similar offenses. With the striking of the battle flag from the capitol dome in Columbia, the thought police everywhere were greatly emboldened.
From the very beginning the controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina transcended the practical question of whether or not it should fly over the state house. Had the flag never been there in the first place, it is doubtful that a Southern heritage group could have succeeded in having it put there in say, the early 1990s. However, to remove the banner after it had been flying for nearly forty years inevitably suggested that there was something disgraceful about it and what it represented. The NAACP and its most vocal allies made it clear from the outset that they would accept nothing less than the humiliation of anyone who thought well of the antebellum South. In 1991, the national NAACP approved the following semi-literate resolution:
WHEREAS the tyrannical evil symbolized in the Confederate Battle Flag is an abhorrence to all Americans and decent people of this country, and indeed, the world and is an odious blight upon the universe; and,
WHEREAS, African-Americans, had no voice, no consultation, no concurrence, no commonality, not in fact or in philosophy, in the vile conception of the Confederate Battle Flag or State Flags containing the ugly symbol of idiotic white supremacy racism and denigration; and,
WHEREAS, we adamantly reject the notion that African-Americans should accept this flag for any stretch of imagination or approve its presence on the State Flags;
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the National Office of the NAACP and all units commit their legal resources to the removal of the Confederate Flag from all public properties.
What was at stake here was nothing less than the question of who gets to write history. If the NAACP and the Sons of Confederate Veterans agreed on anything it was on the importance of this issue. Since well before the War Between the States, the North had drawn on what Robert Penn Warren calls the “Treasury of Virtue.” This was the notion that the North was engaged in a righteous struggle to liberate the slaves and that the wicked South was motivated by nothing other than a desire to hold onto its human chattel. Anyone who questioned the basic outlines of this morality play was judged the intellectual equivalent of a Holocaust denier.
An analogy frequently made by those opposed to the flag was between the Confederacy and Nazi Germany. One would be tempted to dismiss this as mere rhetorical bombast were it not for the fact that so many people seem to believe it. Charles Hamel writes of a demonstration in front of the South Carolina state capitol in which “a group of black demonstrators, wearing African costumes and led by Effie Nwangaza, stitched a Confederate flag to a Nazi flag and attempted to burn them both. . . . In a moment of symbolic beauty, the Nazi half quickly went up in flames while the Confederate half refused to cooperate and would not ignite.”
Some would argue that it really makes no difference what factors brought us to the historic confrontation of 1861. If the North was fighting to end slavery and the South was fighting to preserve it, no one can honor the Confederate flag without also defending slavery. This was essentially the position taken by 101 academics from South Carolina, who released a statement condemning the flag at a press conference on March 31, 2000. In addition to the political, economic, and moral arguments made against the flag, there were now scholarly arguments for taking it down. Because the whole fight was over the interpretation of history, the anti-flag media treated this development as definitive. The story led the evening news and was featured on the front pages of every daily newspaper in the state.
Whether or not the scholarly argument was valid, it was at least an argument. Earlier in the battle, the authority of the academy had been invoked in more questionable ways. It used to be that academic freedom meant that an open marketplace of ideas existed in the university. Professors and students were free to defend any position they believed in, but the institution itself would remain neutral on controversial issues. It was assumed that, once the university enunciated an official party line, it could no longer function as an honest broker among competing viewpoints. Even if this ideal was often violated in practice, it seemed to make sense in theory. On the issue of the flag, however, this was no longer the case. Across the state, college faculty groups went on record as being opposed to the Confederate flag and all it represented.
When the faculty senate at the University of South Carolina voted in favor of striking the flag, the debate was open and spirited. Although few faculty came out in favor of the flag, a significant minority of professors believed that the venerable doctrine of institutional neutrality should remain intact. (This was the position taken by the university's president John Palms.) In the end, however, the anti-flag juggernaut prevailed. At South Carolina's other comprehensive institution of higher learning, Clemson University, the victory was even more complete and considerably less principled.
During the debate at USC, representatives of the Clemson faculty senate told both the press and the faculty at large that their body had no intention of taking an official position on the issue. Then, the Clemson senate turned around and voted unanimously to denounce the flag. This prevented anyone from presenting an opposing view or even raising the issue of institutional neutrality. Not to be outdone by the faculty, the Clemson Board of Trustees voted by telephone on December 20, 1999, to move the flag to some “location commensurate with its value as a symbol of the history of this state.” Clemson president Jim Barker had already added his voice to the swelling chorus by writing and op-ed piece for the virulently anti-flag State newspaper.
Taking a stroll down Memory Lane, Barker recalled the bad old days when he was an undergraduate at Clemson and the school had a Country Gentleman mascot, along with the Tiger, and allowed the marching band to play “Dixie” in addition to the “Tiger Rag.” What was even worse, one could see Confederate flags in the stands along with the Clemson tiger paw. After listening to the University's “new, more diverse student body,” the administration decided to toss “Dixie,” the Country Gentleman, and the battle flag into the trash bin of history. “Today,” Barker writes, “it would be hard to imagine a Clemson football game with any mascot other than the Tiger, any song other than u2018Tiger Rag,' and any flag other than the Tiger Paw.” In the Newspeak of political correctness, “diversity” means censorship, not tolerance, and multiculturalism means suppressing cultures that do not meet with the approval of the ruling elite.
To determine the meaning of the Confederate Battle Flag, one must ultimately determine what the War Between the States was all about. The NAACP and its allies would have us believe that the North waged a war to free the slaves, while the South fought only to keep them. The actual truth is considerably more complex. Although there were some Northerners who would have fought a war to end slavery in the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln was not one of them. He made it clear in his first inaugural address and numerous other public statements that he would do nothing to end slavery in the states where it already existed. He was even willing to accept a constitutional amendment that would have provided a permanent guarantee for slavery in this country. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued well into the war as a matter of military strategy rather than moral principle. It purported to free only those slaves held in rebel territory, without altering the status of those held in states still loyal to the Union.
The North fought for one reason and one reason only — to preserve the Union. Living in a time when secession seems at most a remote threat, it is difficult to realize how fragile the Union seemed in 1861. America was a vast, largely unsettled, continent, which had yet to fulfill its “manifest destiny.” After fighting the British and the Mexicans and committing virtual genocide against the Indians in order to assure our claim to the continent, most Americans — including many in the South — were reluctant to see the Union torn asunder. This was a cause for which people were willing to fight regardless of what they thought about slavery or the plight of displaced Africans living on our soil. Even those who wished to abolish slavery envisioned an outcome far different from the diverse integrated society of left-wing myth. (In antebellum America, the largest population of free blacks lived not in the North but in Charleston, South Carolina.) Most abolitionists — Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe included — were white supremacists, who believed that the freed slaves could prosper only if repatriated to Africa. (Should that not prove feasible, Lincoln was willing to let them “root hog or die.”) If this was the cause of the North, perhaps the NAACP should also protest the presence of the American flag in public places.
If the North was fighting for an imperial vision of American hegemony rather than for the abolition of slavery, what motivated the South? The statement of South Carolina's anti-flag scholars quotes several Confederate officials, who declared that they were committed to preserving slavery. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that the Confederacy was formed to assure the economic survival of the white South. (America's declaration of independence from England was motivated by similar economic considerations.) In 1861, slavery seemed essential to that survival. Of even greater concern, however, was the agricultural tariff passed by the U.S. Congress on behalf of Northern industrial interests. This tariff made it difficult for Southerners to sell cotton and other crops in European Markets. An independent South, free of the tariff, would have prospered among the community of nations. If Lincoln was willing to assure the perpetuation of slavery, this former corporation lawyer was not willing to ease the tariff.
We cannot know what would have happened had the Confederacy been allowed to secede. In light of the available evidence, however, it is absurd to suppose that slavery would have persisted indefinitely in the South. Late in the war, the Confederate government offered to emancipate the slaves in exchange for European support in the struggle for independence. One can easily envision a tariff-free South developing a program for the eventual freeing of the slaves. Without the reflexive need to defend the peculiar institution against self-righteous Yankee moralists, the South might well have listened to the considerable amount of abolitionist sentiment within its borders. As Clyde Wilson has pointed out: “At the time of secession, James H. Thornwell, probably the most influential clergyman in South Carolina and a strong believer in Southern independence, outlined a program for evolutionary emancipation.” At one time, slavery existed throughout the Western world, only to be eliminated peacefully in country after country. The anti-Confederate scholars would have us believe the situation so utterly hopeless in the South that only a war, which cost 700,000 lives, could have freed the slaves there.
If secession would have dealt a death blow to the imperial dream of manifest destiny, it would also have reasserted the republican principles upon which this nation was founded. Had the Constitution explicitly asserted the indissolubility of the Union, it would never have been ratified. At least until the mid-nineteenth century, the strongest sentiment for secession came from the North, where abolitionists denounced their unholy union with the slaveholding South. (William Lloyd Garrison even burned the Constitution because it permitted slavery.) The union that was “preserved” by the War Between the States was not the constitutional bond that had previously united the sovereign states. Through force of arms, the suspension of such basic civil liberties as habeas corpus, and a total war against civilians, Lincoln preserved the dream of empire and laid the foundations for an authoritarian, omnicompetent federal government. Freeing the slaves was decidedly an afterthought.
If some people see the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and nothing more, many others regard it as an emblem of heroism. Throughout the world, particularly in the Eastern bloc, populations seeking their independence fly the battle flag along with their own national flags. A member of the Quebec separatist movement has told Southern sympathizers that, if his people ever break free of Canada, they will unfurl the Confederate flag and play “Dixie” at their victory party. In the nineteenth century, which was the great era of nationalism, secession might have been premature. In the twentieth century, which was dominated by totalitarianism, it was virtually unthinkable. Perhaps the twenty-first century will be the age of devolution. If so, the symbols of the Confederacy could get a new lease on life.
In the meantime, those native Southerners and loyal copperheads who have not been intimidated by the forces of political correctness still dare to speak out. After the anti-flag scholars claimed to have determined, once and for all, the causes of the War Between the States, a group of equally eminent pro-flag scholars issued a statement asserting that the war had been fought over many issues that had little to do with slavery. Ironically, this conservative statement, sponsored by Clyde Wilson, was more liberal in tone than the anti-flag manifesto, which represented its conclusions as nothing less than revealed truth. While offering a different interpretation of the War Between the States, the pro-flag scholars declared: “There are no immutable truths in secular history. History is human experience and may be viewed always from many different perspectives….The primary social value of the study of history is developing the ability to see different sides of a question.”
Any understanding of the great conflict that divided this nation in the 1860s requires an appreciation of the ambiguities and ironies of history. Unfortunately, the politically correct version of our past offers only melodrama, not tragedy. Not only has it become morally unacceptable to wave the Confederate flag and sing “Dixie,” but no public official can now say anything good about the Confederate South without arousing the thought police. (John Ashcroft and Gale Norton discovered as much during their confirmation hearings for positions in George W. Bush's cabinet.) How different are the words of one great American when contemplating the transition from the Old South to the New: “[W]ith all the Bad that fell on one black day, something was vanquished that deserved to live, something killed that in justice did not dare to die;…with the Right that triumphed, triumphed something of Wrong, something sordid and mean, something less than the broadest and best.” These are the words of no white supremacist or neo-Confederate but of W.E.B. Dubois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
October 24, 2001