The topic of race has echoed ceaseless throughout America’s history. Today there is a constant struggle for justice, yet a furious storm has also accompanied the push for equality. In the center of all this fury rests one of the most controversial symbols in human history: the Confederate flag.
On Wed. March 30 Springfield College presented its 2016 Social Sciences Lecture in Judd Gymnasium by welcoming historian and educator Kevin Levin to campus where he delivered his presentation, “Unfurling the History and Meaning of the Confederate Battle Flag.”
Levin opened his talk with the case of the 2015 Emanuel Methodist Church shooting in Charleston, SC and the flag’s attachment to the perpetrator Dylann Roof. Published photographs displayed Roof with Confederate battle flags. “[It was] another taste of the flag being used in connection with racial violence,” said Levin.
Weeks later, when South Carolina grounded the Confederate flag, debates on whether the flag and statues dedicated to the Confederacy should be displayed in public.
Levin proceeded to delve into the Confederate flag’s origin. During the time between the 1850s and ‘60s, the single debate that was dividing America, was centered on racial relations. The origin of the Confederate flag is traced back to the time of the South’s secession in response to the North’s desire to abolish slavery in 1860. Thus, they created a flag to self-identify themselves: the crimson and blue, 13 starred St. Andrews cross that would be known as the national flag of the Confederacy. It became the symbol of defense for slavery and white supremacy. When the Civil War concluded, the South felt as though their way of life was destroyed, and believed that they were putting away their Confederate battle flags for a final time. They, however, were wrong.
The Confederate flag was indeed presumed dead, with little trace of the symbol, even during American reconstruction and rise of the infamous Ku Klux Klan. It was still a time of Southern resistance with the occasional Confederate soldier gatherings yet the emblem of the Confederacy was nowhere to be found.
The advent of the Confederate flag began during the 1940s, at Ole Miss football games. “The flag began to transform into something a bit more of a popular cultural symbol,” Levin said.
This peak of the flag’s popularity came at a pivotal point. Following World War II, America became a “beacon of democracy” which was rather ironic considering America was also one of the most segregated nations in the world. This drove Americans to push for more civil rights. The military was desegregated. The racial status quo began to be challenged. And the opposition down South began to intensify.
By the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the Confederate flag was once again everywhere, in attempts to oppose racial equality. “This is an example of how racism can spread,” said Levin. “Families teaching their children how to hate, and doing so by waving that flag.”
The Confederate flag does not dominate as much as it once did. South Carolina and other Southern states are losing money due to several companies and organizations such as the NCAA refusing to associate with any place where the flag still flies. Students who choose to wear Confederate attire are, as expected by today’s standards, harshly penalized. Yet there is no denying that there are hundreds of Confederate flags still flying throughout the country. The reality however, according to Levin, is that the South, being surrounded by a number of Confederate cemeteries still hold onto the loss of the Civil War, while North simply does not.
The most alarming trend however, involves the locations where the Confederate flag is cropping up. There have been instances of the flag being flown up North in states such as Massachusetts and Vermont.
Levin closed with the reality of the Confederate flag’s origin. “With the issue of race, the inability to come to terms with racism in this country [is a problem],” he said. “Whatever meaning you attach to [the flag], it [still] has a racist past.”
Springfield College’s Social Science professor Ian Delahanty thought highly of the lecture.
“It’s an ongoing debate and an ongoing issue that is still playing out,” he said. “Hopefully this talk [was] informative for people, so that they can appreciate the history of the debate that we are still having.”
He encouraged his Civil War/Reconstruction classes to attend the presentation.
“It [was] an opportunity for them to see how the history unfolded and to see that what happened 150 years ago is still being debated today,” said Delahanty. “Events of the distant past still continue to shape the way that we interact with each other.”
The Confederate flag will regrettably continue to stand as a symbol of present day opposition against the United States’ battle for racial equality, and as a grim reminder of our country’s unfortunate history of separation. But Levin says the further removed we become with the Civil War the less that symbolism will be expressed, and that the memory rather than the history will fade. With that being said, wherever a Confederate flag is grounded, there is great hope and belief that those flags will never fly again.