American Opinion and the Confederate Battle Flag.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Civil Rights movement reached one of its peaks. American public opinion turned against segregation, overt racism, and the violent defense of white dominance. This peak also coincided with the centennial of the Civil War. I haven’t seen (but maybe I haven’t looked hard enough) much scholarly work on how white Southerners sought to commemorate the “American Iliad.”[1] Were little Confederate flags placed on the graves of veterans in cemeteries? Were there speeches on the “Confederate Memorial Day”? Were more streets and highways named for Confederate generals? In any event, I conjecture that a Civil War Movement arose to counter the Civil Rights Movement. One aspect of that appeared in laws incorporating the Confederate battle flag into the state flags of some Southern states or to the displaying of the flag on government buildings.

Fifty years later, much had changed. In late June and early July 2015, the vast majority of Americans (64 percent) opposed having the Confederate flag fly over public buildings, while 21 percent thought that the flag should be allowed to fly over public buildings; and 21 percent weren’t sure.[2] However, most of the 21 percent who favored flying the Confederate flag over public buildings live in Southern states. Two weeks later, a majority (57 percent) of Americans accepted that the Confederate battle flag is a symbolic expression of “Southern pride,” rather than a racist affirmation. However, a majority of Americans still supported hauling down the flag on public property. Among that majority viewing the flag as a symbol of Southern pride were 75 percent of Southern whites. However, 75 percent of Southern blacks saw it as chiefly a racist statement. Deep divisions exist in the South over the Confederate flag.[3] However, lots of Southern whites appear to recognize that what is a symbol of pride to them is also deeply offensive to African-Americans. (See the statement by South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.) This might suggest an important, but hard to define, psychological shift among Southern whites. Still, opinion polls don’t always dig too deep. What did the other 25 percent of Southern whites believe about the flag, that it was a racist affirmation? If so, did they like that or did they hate it?

Why does “Southern” appear to mean “Southern and white”? Is there a regional culture shared by whites and blacks? Looking at Farm Security Administration photographs from the Thirties and Forties might lead you to think so. See the remarkable on-line exhibition at: So might the history of Zydeco.[4] See: Shooting people in church might fall outside the pale in such a shared culture. Or perhaps it awakens memories of a fire-bombed church in Birmingham, Alabama many years ago.

There is no question of the Confederate flag flying over federal buildings, but each state has the right to choose what flags fly on state government grounds. Another problem left to later generations by the Founding Fathers. What did they expect us to do, figure it out for ourselves?

[1] Charles Roland, An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War, 2nd edition (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004).

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 3 July 2015, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 17 July 2015, p. 17.

[4] See:

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